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The UK government’s decision to require overseas arrivals from “high risk” countries to self-isolate in hotels has triggered a debate on the effectiveness of enforced quarantine in government-run facilities. Some have balked at its cost and restrictive character while others have dismissed the measure as half-baked and too little, too late. My experience in a quarantine facility for Covid-19 patients in South Korea might be illuminating in this regard.
Last November, I flew into South Korea to spend a holiday with my family. To sum up the complicated arrival process at Seoul: I was required to download a Covid-19 tracking app, had my temperature checked and was whisked away by pre-approved taxis to the public clinic nearest to my home to take a PCR test. I was then required to self-isolate for more than two weeks at home.
Once at home, I had minimal contact with my parents, both of whom wore masks the entire time and who quickly indicated that I should stay in my room. The test results came back the next morning and I was surprised to find out that I was positive, since I had no symptoms. What shocked me was that officials from the local district’s public health service then came to take me to a government facility. Not long after I was taken away, more officials in full PPE came to disinfect our apartment, check on my parents and tell them to get tested.
Self-quarantining at home if you have Covid-19, no matter how mild the symptoms, is not an option in Korea. Thus began my 14-day stay in a youth hostel in the heart of Seoul that had been converted to a quarantine facility for mildly symptomatic Covid-19 patients. This building once housed Korea’s intelligence agency under the military dictatorship where countless people were tortured, which was hardly uplifting. I was in a medium-sized dorm room with a television, a bathroom and a kettle. To my dismay, I had to share it with three other Covid patients, all of whom were asymptomatic. The doctors assured me that there was little to no possibility that asymptomatic patients could cross-infect one another.
For 14 days, no one could leave their rooms. We were allowed to open the door only to pick up food delivered to us or to put out our rubbish, which we had to treat with disinfectant. Anyone who attempted to get out was sternly warned through the public address system. We were reminded daily that breaking or bending quarantine rules could result in prosecution.
Despite these restrictions, however, two things stood out. First was the level of service on offer. Every patient was provided with a box of “essentials” such as body wash, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, shaving kits, two types of disinfectant, masks, towels and slippers. The food was equally good, better than the most expensive Korean restaurants I had visited in London. These were all provided free for Korean citizens. The nurses and doctors at the facility would check on each patient twice daily, communicating via an app, asking us to measure our blood pressure and temperature and whether we needed medicine. They even offered counselling services to those who were mentally exhausted.
The second was the emphasis on solidarity. The medical staff regularly expressed their regret that we were in this position. They emphasised, however, that we had to do it for others. The message was that by temporarily giving up our freedom, we were keeping others safe. This affected me personally since both my parents are in at-risk groups, and they told me later that they felt safe knowing I was quarantined away rather than self-isolating at home.
Korea’s Covid-19 quarantine facilities are thus underpinned by a mixture of compulsion, state-run (rather than outsourced) public service, and exhortations of social solidarity. Whether such facilities could or should be replicated in the UK is open to question. But their purpose, which is to clarify the boundaries between government-compelled restrictions for the few, and safety for the many, could be worth considering in Britain, amid the policy vacillation between loosening and tightening lockdowns.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: I’ve been in Covid quarantine in South Korea – there’s a lot Britain can learn | South Korea