To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, thousands of people worldwide have been put into quarantine — some voluntarily, in the comfort of their own homes, others in makeshift barracks with armed guards, or in hotels, or on cruise ships.
Their plans are upended, the future is uncertain, and for most of us, no matter how rational we think we are about risk, no matter how calm we imagine we will be in a crisis, that’s a recipe for freaking out.
Ask me how I know.
In June 2009, my husband and I flew to Beijing with our three kids, then 3, 5 and 7, and my mother to adopt another daughter, also 3. We planned a few days to get acclimated before travelling to our new daughter’s foster home, but on our second day there, after a visit to the gardens at Beihai Park, my husband’s Blackberry rang. It was a representative of the Chinese government, asking us to return to our hotel room immediately.
Quarantine is one of the many waiting rooms of life, and its own special circle of hell for people raised with the illusion that we control our destinies. We prefer to believe that anything can be overcome if we just try hard enough
It turned out that the family in the row in front of us on the aeroplane over had tested positive for H1N1 — swine flu. What that meant, in China in 2009, was that we could expect to be tested, too, and then either hospitalised or moved to a quarantine facility.
We wouldn’t be the only people in that situation — we had heard rumours that the mayor of New Orleans and his wife were guests of the Chinese government, along with an entire marching band from California — but according to the US. Embassy, we would be the only family with young children in tow. The American officials did not know how that would be handled, but we were asked to cooperate, and we did.
I have been using the verb “asked.” It is accurate, but only up to a point. We were “asked” at every stage, but there were no alternatives. And I say we “cooperated,” and that is also accurate, but it’s too quiet a word for our disbelieving reaction. It sounds terrible now — the opposite of what you would expect from a good global citizen — but we argued. We tried to negotiate, to bargain. How could this be happening? But it was.
Frightened and angry
In our defence, we were frightened, about our health, and about our kids’. And we were angry, not at China, exactly, but at fate.
My husband tested positive for the flu and was padlocked into a hospital room. The rest of us sat out a heatwave on the outskirts of Beijing in what had once been an opulent resort for high-ranking officials and was now essentially a ruin, a guard with a gun at the entrance.
We spoke no Mandarin and had to guess at what was expected of us. Two young women with serious faces showed us to our rooms. They opened one door for my 7-year-old and another for my mother, seeming to expect each member of the family to separate. But no one objected when I kept both younger children in my arms and walked into only one room.
They gave me keys. They pointed to bottles of water. And then they walked away. The minute their footsteps disappeared down the hall my 7-year-old rushed into my room, crying. I pulled him in before anyone could see. There was a hole in the wall, he said, and mold all around it, and he was scared. So was I.
Did I say scared? I was terrified.
It’s the fear that I remember most vividly. It wasn’t just that I didn’t understand what we were supposed to do; it was that I didn’t know what was going to happen. Could we leave our rooms? Would we get in trouble if they found us all in here together? What if I got sick? What if the children got sick? Would they be taken away from me? How long until we could go home?
I did leave my room. I couldn’t keep still. I remember chasing the one English-speaking official into his office and cornering him, trying to force him to walk through all the possibilities with me, as though by naming them, I could bend them to my will. He shook his head, refusing to answer, and finally got up and left, waving off the crazy woman who couldn’t just accept that we were both at the mercy of events neither of us could control. How, the look on his face demanded, had I reached adulthood without ever learning to accept that sometimes, you just have to ride the waves?
Waiting room of life
Quarantine is one of the many waiting rooms of life, and its own special circle of hell for people raised with the illusion that we control our destinies. We prefer to believe that anything can be overcome if we just try hard enough. But there is no trying in quarantine. There is only the sitting, and, if you wish to retain your hold on your sanity, the letting go. What comes next? No one knows. That’s why we have quarantine in the first place.
By Day 4, I had stopped chasing the English-speaking official or frantically calling the embassy. The answer to every question I asked was “it depends,” and the one thing it did not depend on was me.
We began to follow the lead of the people around us, all Chinese nationals. We wore our masks to meals and took walks around the courtyard in the evenings, keeping our distance from the other inmates. (One does not fraternise in quarantine, even if one speaks the language.)
As the days slowly passed, we slid into a routine of cold showers and laying very still on the tile floor in between the twice-daily fever checks, trying to decipher the cartoons on TV.
“Why do you think that plate is floating in the air over the sheep?” someone would ask, and we would contemplate this, yet another of the mysteries of our new life.
My husband recovered from the flu and returned to the hotel, but as potential incubators we had to keep waiting. The English-speaking official, once I stopped trying to pin him down, began trying to make us more comfortable. We were each given a single, ice-cold Coke each day, and an acquaintance was allowed to send us a supply of Pringles in unexpected flavours: shrimp, crab, Hong Kong Fish Ball. My mother, who had stolen all the instant Nescafe from the hotel on the night they came to take us away, figured out how to make iced coffee.
Bring the Pringles
At last, after 10 symptom-free days, we were told we could leave. With the taxi on the way, I beckoned my oldest son into the hallway. “Bring the Pringles,” I said.
We walked up and down. Behind every door was someone in the middle of the same uncertain journey we had just taken, their only advantage that they, at least, could understand the cartoon about the sheep. I wanted to give one person something else to think about.
“Listen for a family with kids,” I whispered to my son, and he pointed to a door. That one.
“Get ready to run,” I told him, this kid who had never played Ding Dong Dash in his entire sheltered life. We put the Pringles down in front of the door, and I knocked hard, then grabbed his hand, and we tore off toward the stairwell.
We never found out if our fellow sufferers enjoyed their Pringles. It is estimated that somewhere between 11 and 21 per cent of the global population was infected with the virus during the pandemic, and that more than 284,000 people died. A vaccine was developed. New cases decreased. The world moved on.
We had been lucky. We were quarantined. Then we weren’t. And there was never, at any moment, anything I could do about it.
— KJ Dell’Antonia is a columnist and author