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Diary: Running away from Covid-19

29 April 2020

By Marites Palma, The Sun Writers’ Club


Marites on her first trip to Central after ending her quarantine

(Marites shares with us this rare and beautiful recounting of the days she spent with her employers trying to keep themselves safe from the coronavirus by fleeing to England at first, then rushing back to Hong Kong when the situation there got worse. Their attempt to avoid the mandatory quarantine failed, so Marites, her female employer and her two young wards, isolated themselves for 14 days. As Marites recounts, the experience wasn't easy, but they all got out of it the better for the experience - Ed)

Monday, Jan 27, 2020
It was 5pm on the last day of the Lunar New Year. My male employer phoned and asked me if I had my passport with me. I replied that I always left it in my drawer at home. Then he asked if I would allow him to look for it in my room. “Yes, please, Sir. It is in my white cabinet, in the topmost drawer,” I answered. A few minutes later, he called again: “Your UK visa expired yesterday, otherwise you should be getting ready for our flight tonight to the UK because an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus has just been revealed to public.” Then he asked me, “Where have you been these past three days? Have you heard of the coronavirus epidemic that started in Wuhan, China?” Yes, I replied. I told him I just stayed in our boarding house. “It’s good to know, Tess, that you are looking after yourself. See you tonight.”

Wednesday, Feb 5
The Hong Kong government announced on Jan 31 the suspension of classes at all levels and extension of the Lunar New Year holiday. School reopening has been tentatively scheduled for Feb 17. My male employer immediately asked me to apply for a UK visa so I could fly with his family to the UK and stay there with my two young wards until the situation got better. He helped me to apply online on Feb 3, and my visa was released on Feb 5 and sent to me by post. The British Consulate did not know that the Hong Kong Post had deployed a lean workforce due to the contagion. As a result, I didn’t receive my passport on time despite paying the fee for same-day delivery.
Thursday, Feb 6
My travel plans got fouled up. Our scheduled flight was at midnight of Feb 5 via British Airways from Hong Kong to London Heathrow. But the mailman didn’t come. So, my male employer decided to fly out alone with my two wards aged 2 and 4. I felt bad because I couldn’t help him look after the kids on the long flight. Today, I rang up the Post Office asking the staff to locate my passport. I told them I missed my flight due to their failure to deliver it. They said they’d call me once they located it. I kept calling until they got mad and stopped answering. But, at the end of the day, they called and advised me to wait until Monday, Feb 7.

Saturday, Feb 8
My employer rebooked my ticket on the day I got my passport, but he was worried because I’d be flying to London on my own for the first time. He also wrote a letter for me to show to the British Immigration officer just in case I’d be questioned on arrival. I had with me as well my return ticket on Feb 29. But the flight turned out to be  smooth and I arrived in London safe and sound. Before I walked to the Immigration officer, I got myself ready, removed my hat and my mask, said “Good morning, Sir” and handed him my passport. “You traveled alone, Darling?” he asked and I said, “Yes Sir, because my boss and her two kids came here first.” “This is your third time to come here,” he continued, and I answered “Yes sir.” He then gave me back my passport and said with a sweet smile, “Enjoy your stay here, Darling.” I replied “Thank you, sir” with a smile.
After collecting my luggage, I walked straight to the Arrival Hall where my boss and (my wards’) Granddad were waiting. It was 5am London time when we drove out of Heathrow to Bristol in the English countryside where Granny and Granddad live. We traveled 3 hours by car and the temperature was 3 degrees Celsius on the day I arrived. As soon as we got to Granny’s house, I went to the bathroom and had a 10-minute hot bath. When I was ready, my wards came running to me saying, “I miss you, Auntie Tess, I love you, Auntie Tess.” They’re really very sweet toddlers. Though the weather was very cold, I enjoyed it as it made me feel younger.
Wednesday, Feb 12
My boss needed to fly back to Hong Kong for his job, so he entrusted his children to me. I felt sad thinking that we would be left at Granny's house but it’s OK for the sake of the children’s health. My wards didn’t feel the absence of their parents because their grandparents love them so much, with Granny always taking us out to cheer them.

Saturday, Feb 29
Today, our flight back to Hong Kong was cancelled because the Education Bureau had reset the resumption of classes to Mar 16. Our daily routine of going out for a walk around the village and to the farm to feed the hogs and call the herd of sheep on the meadow by imitating their bleating had become an entertainment to my two wards.

Thursday, Mar 12
Today, my youngest ward, Alikins, celebrated her third birthday, the first time without her Mommy and Daddy. But she was very happy because Granny and Granddad spoiled her on her birthday. They showered her with a cake, chocolates and lots of presents. 

Monday, Mar 16
My lady boss arrived a few days after Alikins’ birthday to fetch us for our trip back to Hong Kong. In a twist of fate, the number of Covid infections in the UK is getting bigger while the situation in Hong Kong is getting better. My lady employer has booked our flight for Mar 17, via Vietnam, so that we will not undergo the compulsory quarantine announced by the Hong Kong government effective on Mar 19.

Tuesday, Mar 17
We were all set to fly back to Hong Kong via Vietnam today. Unfortunately, a few hours after check-in, Vietnam announced that it was closing its borders to foreigners from the UK, where the death toll and number of infected cases has increased rapidly, causing panic-buying as people stocked up on food, hand sanitizers and tissues. I had thought only Hongkongers would behave that way, but I now realize that westerners also do. Luckily, Granddad, who drove us to Heathrow Airport, waited for us and brought us back to Bristol. We had been very careful at the airport wiping everything we sat on with alcohol wipes. I felt like the unseen killer was just beside us. I sterilized every chair and table we’d used while at the airport. When the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, we all feared for our lives. By then, the contagion had shifted to Europe with Italy as the new epicenter where daily deaths were reported by the hundreds.
Friday, Mar 20
We were lucky our original flight booked for Mar 20 was still OK. My boss didn’t cancel it when he booked our flight on Vietnam Airlines. Airfares were soaring but my employers didn’t mind the price as long as we were safe and able to escape for the second time from Covid-19. The second drive back to London Heathrow made me uneasy because, despite the contagion, some people didn’t believe in wearing a mask, preferring instead to wash their hands from time to time. But there were also a lot of passengers who were obviously deathly scared of the coronavirus and had worn protective gear from head to toe. Some wore raincoats, goggles, hats and gloves.
I noticed many passengers refused food served during the flight and many didn’t use the lavatory. Everyone was quiet and without a smile; it was only my wards who made noise. I refused my in-flight meal, but my boss asked me to eat so I wouldn’t starve during the 12-hour flight.
Our flight arrived on time at Hong Kong International Airport and everybody rushed to fill up forms for the compulsory quarantine and health declaration. After I submitted the forms before going through Immigration, an airport staff put an electronic wristband around my left wrist. My two wards didn’t have the device because it was only for people 7 years old and above.

Saturday, Mar 21
When we got home, we immediately installed the mobile app called StayHomeSafe and registered my employers’ house as our quarantine location. Compulsory quarantine started on the day we arrived. My wards were happy on the first day because they could play with their favorite toys, the LOL dolls.

Sunday, Mar 22
On Day 2, they wanted to go to the playground, but I said Auntie Tess was busy, so could we just watch their favorite videos on TV, and they could even play on their iPods. My lady boss cooked our food and I looked after my wards.

Monday, Mar 23
I could already feel stress today because my employer needed to work online and the children should therefore be quiet. I kept my wards in their room, playing with them, telling stories, reading piles of books. When they got bored of me, I would let them use their iPods. I could feel the pressure. The children were asking me to go out and play at the roof garden, or to go out to see their friends they hadn’t seen for a long time. When they cried I had to stop them because my boss needed silence for her online meetings, phone calls and teaching online. The children were cranky, too, because of jet lag. I really had a big headache but I needed to look after them.

Tuesday, Mar 24
On our fourth day of quarantine, my employer made a schedule for me so I would know what time the children should be in their room. Daily activities were scheduled. I felt better with the schedule she made so that I would know what to do at certain times of the day.
Marites hugs her 2 wards in front of her birthday cake which her thoughtful employer had  baked

Wednesday, Mar 25
Today is my birthday, and my employers surprised me by letting me blow candles on my cake which my employer had baked secretly and my oldest ward helped to decorate. On this day I donated the red packet I received from my employer to Bethune House Migrant Women's Refuge. I felt good because, though I couldn’t celebrate my special day with my friends as I used to, the money went to a noble cause and that made me happier.
This is also our fifth day in isolation, and my wards again asked me to take them down from the house, but this time their mum explained to them that there was a virus lurking everywhere, posing danger to everyone. The world is in danger because of the coronavirus, so we needed to stay home to be safe, their mum said. Since then, the toddlers understood the situation and didn’t again ask to go out. If I told them it was time to go to their room to play, they never hesitated.
Before my employer started her online work, my wards would have had breakfast already, been bathed and dressed up to make them feel that we were living normally in spite of being locked up. From time to time, I would receive messages from the mobile app to scan the code on my wristband for the monitoring of our whereabouts.

Thursday, Mar 26
I felt better on our sixth day of quarantine because I was getting used to our daily routine, but my two wards would still break into crying and fighting, so I had to bribe them with chocolates or sweets to silence them. I would let them watch their favorite movies such as Paddington Bear I and II, Frozen I and II, Moana, Peter Rabbit, Mr Grinch, Trolls and Minions, or let them listen to the music of Alexa and do exercises by dancing to their favorite children’s music.

Friday, Mar 27
On our seventh day, everybody seemed to be getting OK with our set-up. There were no symptoms of coronavirus among us. We were grateful to our Heavenly Father because He was keeping us safe until this moment.

Saturday, Mar 28
Rest day came on our eighth day. I couldn’t pretend that I was 100% OK because I was really very tired already, not having rested enough since we arrived from the UK. I locked my room so that my wards couldn’t disturb me. At 2pm, I was fast asleep.

A more relaxed Marites displaying her tracking wristband
Sunday, Mar 29
I felt so good when I woke up from an uninterrupted sleep at 5am today. Due to the lockdown in my hometown to help contain the Covid-19 contagion, my family decided to give relief goods to needy households in our village. Each of us siblings shared certain amounts of money for two sorties of relief goods distribution. I shared the extra salary I received from 10 weeks of not having a day off and half of the red packet I received as a birthday present from my employers. We siblings believed in the saying, “We make a living for what we get, but we make a life for what we give.” Fifty families received the 50 bags of relief goods we prepared for them. Seeing their happy faces made my heart rejoice. My daughter helped in repacking and distributing the goods.
On our ninth day of quarantine, I was really feeling better. I could do my work smoothly without headache and pressure. I felt relaxed and energized. My wards were happy with the situation but sometimes they would still say they were bored. At times, they would throw their iPods, but I would keep assuring them that soon it would be over and when everything was OK we’d go out and play.

Monday, Mar 30
On Day 10 after our morning ritual, we went to the children’s room to play. I let them choose which princess dress they would like to wear. This way, I could tell more stories about princesses while they lived out the characters. The pressure on me was easing as we got closer to our 14th day.

Tuesday, Mar 31
On our 11th day, the toddlers had a video call with their cousins in the UK. They looked and talked like grown-ups on the video call. They spent time talking and it made them feel better and happier seeing each other even if it was just a video call. We also let them call their friends in Hong Kong. I enjoyed watching them talk to their friends. When VV asked her friend Art if he could feel her heart beating fast, I controlled myself from laughing so she wouldn’t get embarrassed. This made me realize that we are in the Computer Age where children can speak on the phone, know how to turn the television on and off, know how to switch the iPod on, know how to watch Youtube and how to skip the advertisements. Social media has really helped families get closer if used properly.

Wednesday, Apr 1
On our 12th day, we were already planning what to do and what to eat once we finished our quarantine. The children were happy and so were us adults because we could not wait to get out of the house once we have completed our forced home detention.

Thursday, Apr 2
Day 13 was a bit special because my boss had no more online meetings and the children could play freely anywhere inside the house. They were already allowed to talk and sing freely, play hide and seek and dance to loud music. I, too, was very excited to get rid of my electronic wristband.

Friday, Apr 3
This morning, I received a message saying, “Your 14-day compulsory quarantine period will end at midnight today. Afterward, you can cut and remove the wristband and uninstall the StayHomeSafe app. Thank you for your cooperation, and wish you good health. Together we fight...” So, at midnight of Apr 3, I took a pair of scissors and video-recorded my act of cutting the wristband just for memories of Covid-19.

Saturday, Apr 4
We woke up early on Apr 4 and excitedly went down to the playground. My wards were so excited that when we arrived at our roof garden, they ran fast while shouting, “Hurray!” They were rolling on the ground with joy. This was the first time I saw them like this. They looked like birds that managed to fly out of their cage. My employers were also rejoicing that we made it and we were all healthy. “We are free!” I shouted in jubilation, my hands raised, and thanked God for keeping us safe on our journeys to escape from Covid-19. My employer went to her office immediately after our walk on the playground.  As for me, I worked today and changed my statutory rest day.

Sunday, Apr 5-Monday, Apr 6
I took my first day off in 12 weeks since the coronavirus outbreak. I was so grateful that I was finally out of quarantine, and that I remained hale and hearty after all our chaotic experience at London Heathrow.
On these two days, I ate everything that I had craved for, such as barbecue pork, “dinengdeng” with roasted tilapia and, of course, I visited Jollibee in Central.
Praising the Lord for His kindness and blessings, my siblings distributed the second wave of relief goods we prepared for another 50 families in our village.
I can now look back with gratitude because my 14-day compulsory quarantine taught me to be patient, and with a deep appreciation for every blessing that has come my way.

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