“You have to stay here,” the woman in the hazmat suit said.
“But I need to catch my connecting flight to Jeju, where I live. It leaves in two hours. I can’t stay here,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady and show that I was in control of my emotions, which I most certainly was not.
“No. You stay in Seoul. PCR test.”
“But, I have a negative PCR test result from America that I took before boarding the plane. I will take the PCR when I land in Jeju.”
“No. You cannot go to Jeju. Stay here.”
End of discussion. No more bargaining. I was taken to a cubicle by another hazmat-suited worker, where I would remain for the better part of two hours. I was given a new mask to wear, one that had two thick rubber bands to hold it in place and cut into my face, leaving marks. No water. No food. No access to a toilet. I was contaminated in their eyes. Someone to avoid, less I give them my germs, the ones that might contain Covid.
As I sat in my isolation chamber, becoming more and more restless and agitated as the time slowly ticked by, I called my boss, my friend, and my parents to tell them what happened and try to make sense of what would happen next. I called Korean Air to inform them of my detainment and inability to make my connecting flight, which I then lost.
After what felt like ages, I was finally given more information. I would be given a PCR test, taken to retrieve my luggage, and then take a bus to a temporary quarantine facility, where I would wait until my results came back. If I tested negative, I would be allowed to rebook my flight to Jeju, where I would be able to spend my 10-day quarantine in my own home. But if I tested positive, I would be sent to another quarantine facility outside of Seoul, where I would quarantine until I was told I could leave. Things weren’t looking good for me.
A little while later, I was escorted, along with a few other pariahs, along a corridor, down the elevator, and outside, into below freezing weather, to wait in line for what can only be described as the most invasive and painful PCR test I’ve ever had.
After getting off the bus at the quarantine facility, I struggled with my three large bags, as the hazmat suits stared at me, offering no help at all. To say the facility was depressing doesn’t do it justice. I walked down the fluorescent-lit hallway to my room, dragging my bags behind me. The door to my room opened onto a small “holding area,” beyond which was another door. My room was sparse, containing a twin-sized bed with a hard mattress wrapped in unclean plastic, a bedside table, a table and two chairs, a TV on a stand, a small fan, a wardrobe, a mini-fridge, and a landline phone. I had a basic private bathroom with a shower, a lone hand towel, and no soap (I’m in here due to Covid, yet I can’t wash my hands…the irony!). Luckily the wardrobe had a blanket and a pillow, so I didn’t have to lay on the plastic-wrapped mattress. I was shocked to find that the facility did not have wifi access, but I was lucky that I live in Korea so that I was able to use the data on my phone.
I was told the wait would be 8-10 hours. After a 15-hour flight, several hours in the airport, and the stress of the day, I tried to get some sleep. I was awoken abruptly around 2:00am by a gruff hazmat suit who stormed into my room without so much as a knock. In Korean, I was directed to sit at the table. For the record, I don’t speak Korean, but I figured it out using context clues and body language. A laminated paper was placed in front of me informing me that I had tested positive for Covid. Tears came to my eyes, fear and dread setting in. But I’m not even sick, I thought. I picked up the paper to read more information about what would happen to me next, but hazmat suit snatched it from my hands, barking, “No touch!”
The instructions said that I would be taken by ambulance in the morning to another facility in another (undisclosed) city for my quarantine. I was to take my luggage, but prior to leaving, I was to pack everything I would use in the next facility separately, as all of my personal belongings used at the facility would be incinerated upon my departure and any electronics would likely be damaged during the cleaning and disinfecting process. I would be responsible for all of the costs for the government quarantine, but no amount was given, as it would depend on the number of days I had to remain there.
The reality of the situation set in, and I couldn’t hold back my tears, as anger, frustration, and fear pulsed through me. My worst nightmare had come true. I’d heard about this happening, and I knew it was a risk for me to have traveled home for Christmas, but I hadn’t thought it would actually happen to me. I begged hazmat suit to let me out. I’d quarantine at home, I promised. “You can put an ankle monitor on me if you want. I won’t leave my house at all.” Every request was met with an uncaring “NO!” which only left me spinning out of control. I wasn’t even sick! I had a little bit of a stuffy nose, but that was it. Surely I’m not a danger to society. “Can I see my PCR result?” I asked through my tears, unsure how i could have tested positive after testing negative on twelve rapid antigen tests and three PCRs back home. Like every other request, it was denied. No amount of pleading changed her mind. Getting tired of my emotional response, she left.
I crumpled. Ripping off the mask, I sobbed, realizing that no matter what, this was my fate. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t rational. And the sense of injustice I felt couldn’t be squashed. The heat in the room didn’t help the situation either. Hot air blew into the room, making it nearly unbearable. I knew it was -11C outside, but I needed to crack a window. Damn! The windows were bolted shut. Probably to prevent an escape, I thought.
After calling everyone (parents, friends, boss) to alert them to my predicament, I collapsed on the bed, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. A few hours later, I was awoken again by my breakfast delivery, a ham and cheese sandwich and bottle of orange juice, along with two small bottles of water. I’m a vegetarian, which I told them when I was detained. No dietary accommodations were made here, they said. Orange juice, it is! Luckily I had a few snacks in my bag that I’d brought from Texas. Mostly cookies, chips, and candy, but hey, it was something.
That first day I was a fighter, doing everything in my power to get myself out of there. The ladies on the other end of my landline got so tired of me calling that they mostly just hung up whenever they heard my voice. The US Embassy tried to help, but they couldn’t make any headway either. As the day progressed, I realized I was stuck.
Lunch and dinner were the same, white rice with some sort of fried meat, kimchi, and three pickle slices. I ate the rice and pickles.
Due to a lack of space at the other facilities, I ended up staying there for four days. Without wifi, and not wanting to drain my data in case I needed it later, I was bored. I watched reruns of old crime shows, like CSI and Law and Order, that played on one of the three English channels. But mostly I slept. The heat was unbearable, and despite the small fan and lack of clothing (I only wore a tank top and pair of sleep shorts), I was burning up. I didn’t have a fever though. My thrice daily temperature checks I had to do confirmed that. After my numerous complaints about the heat and requests to turn it down, one of the hazmat suits brought me a large ice pack, which I would use to cool my body, moving it from my head to my torso to my feet. It helped some.
The days dragged on, and I felt like I’d never be free from that prison. On day four, I was notified that I would be transported to the new facility. My own hazmat suit, gloves, new mask, face shield, and booties arrived with my morning delivery. This is what I was to wear in the ambulance.
To be continued…