Voluntary incarceration in Singapore

March 14, 2021

My two weeks ‘quarantine sojourn’ provided an opportunity for soul searching that was long overdue

Room with a view.

By most accounts, Covid-19 has dealt a deadly blow to the travel industry. While a temporary fall in tourism is understandable, one would expect it to recover. It is the impact on business travel, the mainstay of many economies, that will have long-term effects.

I got firsthand experience of this ‘new age’ travel during my trip to Singapore in January. It was a business trip that I had been avoiding for months but now had to be done.

Flying out from Dubai, I was told that the Singaporeans require a mandatory two-week quarantine for visitors. And that this quarantine period would be conducted in a state-designated hotel and programme. After that, I would be free to roam around the city.

The passenger handling was carried out with military precision. We were bundled in a bus and taken to our designated hotels (Carlton City in my case). Post check-in I was assigned to my room which was to be my home for the next fourteen days. The room was a decent quality four-star hotel standard. I chose halal/Indian as my food option; more on this later.

What followed were two weeks of the most surreal experience I have ever had. I did not leave the room at all for fourteen days (exception: briefly for 15 minutes for a Covid test on day 11). I had no human interaction for eleven days (again: except during the Covid test).

Food was delivered in plastic containers three times a day. I would get a knock on the door and then open it to find food placed on a chair outside the room. The person putting it there gone by the time I got to the door, so I never saw anyone. I would leave laundry in a bag and it would be returned in two days. I had to clean and change linen on my own, cleaning materials and extra linen were provided.

The only form of entertainment was TV (with limited channel offering) and connectivity to the world via the internet (WhatsApp, Zoom, YouTube). I had been advised beforehand so had I packed some books and a skipping rope, both proved vital. I was fortunate enough to have a room with a decent view, but the lack of fresh air was problematic as the windows did not open, nor was there a balcony.

The term ‘Indian food’ in Singapore implies South Indian cuisine which is miles away from what we are used to. Thanks to recommendations by a local foodie, I started ordering from restaurants via apps, such as Deliveroo, it was quality food delivered efficiently.

My movements were tracked via a Homer application, which required that I upload a selfie and my temperature every few hours. In addition, I received random calls from the ministry of health and the hotel reception to ensure that I was indeed in my room. I was told that if found to have left the room during this period, I would be deported immediately: remember 1984?

These measures were, of course, put in place for my protection and the protection of the local community. The hotel workers were always courteous and responsive to my requests. Even though I had been forewarned, this was not an easy experience.

Deserted Changi.

My movements were tracked via a Homer appliction which required that I uploade a selfie and my temperature every few hours. In addition, I received random calls from the ministry of health and the hotel reception to ensure that I was indeed in my room.

I expected 2021 to be the year when things would be returning to normalcy reasonably quickly. Based on what I have seen, it seems the uncertainty (on travel) would last beyond this year. One of the major factors in this situation is the difference in tactics used by various countries to tackle Covid. Another will be the stark differences in vaccination programmes’ rollout between the rich and poor countries. (Relatively) free movement of people between countries will require homogenising Covid protocols.

Take the UAE and Singapore as an example. When I flew out of Dubai, the airport was bursting with activity and people. Although everyone wore a mask, social distancing wasn’t exactly the norm. Dubai had opened its gates to tourists in December and the deluge of holiday makers had arrived, including from the UK, carrying new variants of the virus.

Many hotels were operating at 90 percent plus capacity and restaurants, etc, were packed. But when I landed at Changi Airport (Singapore); it was as if I had entered the twilight zone. It was dark. All shops were shut. The passengers were outnumbered by the security, health and immigration personnel. Everyone had a full protective mask on plus a face shield. No one came close to us and it was clear that the airport operations were highly restricted. This was followed by the quarantine routine described above. As it was Singapore, these rules were applied without exception, no sifarish business.

Once out, everyone was required to carry one’s phone or identifying documents with one. Every time one entered a building (even where one was staying), one was required to scan with Trace Together application.

Result: In January, the UAE with a population of 9 million had around 4,000 new cases of infection per day. Singapore, with a population of 6 million, had barely 30 cases a day out of which around 25 were inbound travellers kept safely in quarantine — so less than 5 domestic cases inside the country.

But Singapore is paying a heavy price for this. There are no tourists. Business travel is down to a trickle. Main attractions, such as Sentosa, are deserted. Changi Airport, ranked consistently as number one in the world, is not functional in the normal sense. As a rich country they have decent domestic demand, and the malls and restaurants are still relatively busy. The government has offered generous grants to support local businesses. How many countries can afford the luxury?

It should be added that Singapore was amongst pioneers of the ‘strict’ Covid protocols. These are now being replicated in other countries, including Qatar and the UK.

On a personal level, my two weeks ‘quarantine sojourn’ provided an opportunity for soul searching that was long overdue. One can work, read books and chat for hours and still have time left to think. It is inevitable and it is welcome.

I had never realised how we take human interaction for granted. I have rarely been as happy as I was to see the attendant who took me for my Covid test on Day 11. Most shocking, I did not use TV at all, YouTube and Netflix kept me sufficiently entertained. The future for terrestrial TV is bleak. Internet is our new lifeline. Even though I travelled voluntarily and was in a luxurious accommodation, incarceration is suffocating both mentally and physically.

My advice (at the time of writing): until Covid protocols are standardised and vaccination completed, avoid international travel as far as possible.

Lastly, I thank my friends and family who endured chatting/talking to me for two weeks. You know who you are.

The writer is a finance professional based   in Dubai

Voluntary incarceration in Singapore