SINGAPORE — Just under a week into a mandatory 14-day quarantine order, amid the Wuhan virus outbreak that has infected 24 people in Singapore, the isolation and frustration is starting to eat away at David Cher, 40.
Cher is currently holed up in a two-storey, four-room unit at Aloha Changi resort, alongside most of the 92 Singaporeans who were evacuated from Wuhan last Thursday (30 January). The Singaporeans were brought to the chalet straight after touchdown. A handful have subsequently been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
Cher is not allowed to leave his room or interact with the others in his unit. When he steps out onto the balcony, patrolling security officers tell him to go back in. To make matters worse, the 10-stick-a-day man is unable to smoke. “I told them, for smokers, if you don’t let us smoke, we will have withdrawal symptoms: running nose, fever. Then you will think we are sick,” he told Yahoo News Singapore over a chat app on Tuesday.
Cher is also required to take his temperature three times a day, when health officials check in with him over the phone. The other day, men in protective gear came to his room and took nasal swabs from him.
There is no television in his room, but meals and newspapers are delivered on a daily basis.
“I am getting restless. It’s very bek cek (Hokkien for frustrating),” said the business development manager. “I just walk up and down, up and down.” The days consist of reading news reports on his phone, keeping up with work, talking on WeChat, sleeping and waiting for meals.
But the quarantine is the least of his worries: his Chinese national wife Hu Lamei, 36, and two young children - aged eight months and 2.5 years - remain in China. On the day of the flight home, they were informed by Singaporean consular officials that Chinese citizens were forbidden by their own government to leave the country.
The couple then had a matter of hours to decide what to do. Should Cher stay with his family? Come home with the kids, or leave them with his wife and in-laws?
While Cher’s first instinct was to stay, he eventually decided to come back alone. He had to work and had no one else in Singapore to help look after the kids. “I thought, if I come back to Singapore, it’s easier to seek help directly from the government here,” he reasoned. “But now I am stuck here.”
For now, his family remains safe in Chibi, a city more than 120km away from Wuhan, the epicentre of the viral outbreak. “I talk to them every day. I told my wife, don’t go out for the sake of the kids. When I am out of quarantine, I will do what I can for them. “
‘Every day, look at the sky, the ceiling’
On Monday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministry taskforce on the virus, told Parliament that there are about 140 Singaporeans still in Wuhan. Some were symptomatic, while many have spouses and relatives who are Chinese nationals. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also told the House, "We will not leave anyone behind. We will look out for you."
Some of the remaining Singaporeans told Yahoo News Singapore that MFA officials are in regular contact with them. On 30 January, China's Foreign Ministry also told Reuters that Chinese nationals who are family members of foreign citizens can board evacuation flights from Wuhan if they wish.
As of Sunday night (2 February), some 524 individuals are currently under quarantine in Government Quarantine Facilities (GQFs) and at home.
“The boredom will kill people,” said 47-year-old Kelvin, a fellow smoker quarantined alongside Cher who declined to give his surname. “We are only allowed to open our window, so we are basically in a confined area. I know the government is very worried about the spread of the virus, but mentally and physically it’s a big challenge, because there is nothing to do and you can’t even interact with people.”
Like Cher, Kelvin is worried about his family - his wife and four-month-old son remain in Hong’an county, where temperatures can dip below zero. The couple had brought him to her hometown to meet his grandparents for the first time. Kelvin chose to return alone as he feared losing his job, and he had no other relatives to help look after the kids.
“They are doing good, but I think food is running out because their village is also locked down. The milk powder can only last a month too, so it’s not a place for them to stay put long.”
‘What if something happens to her?’
Faisal Bushfield, 54, is doing his best to keep his spirits up, as well as that of his children Arden, 5, and Ariane, 6. “We make it a competition to see who has a temperature within range, who is the highest, the lowest,” said Bushfield. “We call my wife and in-laws in Wuhan nearly every day. Her parents are very happy just to see the kids happy and smiling and making a lot of noise.”
Bushfield prepared toys and games in anticipation of the quarantine. His employers, a Danish water pump manufacturer, have been “very supportive”. His boss even sent over a “huge box”, filled with toys, colouring books and food. And while he usually travels often for work, arrangements have already been made to suspend his travel for the next three months.
While those under quarantine are well taken care of - authorities even ensured both Bushfield and Cher had prescription medication for their respective conditions - Bushfield admits that the isolation is taking its toll. “I’m an exercise buff, so I’m just frustrated that I cannot go for runs or walks. I wish they would organise 30 minutes for us to go out and take a walk while escorted. I think that might help us mentally and give us a boost.”
Like Cher and Kelvin, Bushfield and his wife Qu Haiyan, 41, had to make a decision on short notice on the day of the flight home. Ultimately, his wife and in-laws urged him to leave with the children as they felt it would be safer for them.
“What if something happens to her and I’m not there? Can I live with that? What if I leave the kids behind and something happens to them?” Bushfield recalled thinking. “Basically it’s a test of how strong the marriage is. There’s never a right answer in this kind of situation. We will manage the unknown consequences in the future.”
For now, his wife and in-laws are safe in the city of Wuhan. “It is bad. The streets are deserted, but food supplies are okay. No one is really going out except to the supermarket.”
And while Bushfield said the family has a “positive outlook”, he admitted, “I am mentally preparing for the worst scenario and how I’m going to tell the kids if something does happen to their mother.”
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