A Facebook user by the name of Phonesamai Huisjes has recently risen to fame on social media for documenting her personal experiences in a state-designated quarantine center.
A Lao national, Phonsamai had been legally living in Thailand for over a decade with her family, often traveling back to Laos via the 4th Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge (Bokeo-Chiang Rai) once a week to manage her small business in Bokeo. However, since the March 20th lockdown, she had been stranded in Thailand unable to cross the bridge to her native country, relying on digital methods to operate her business remotely.
Months later, her mother had become very ill, prompting her to coordinate with the Lao Embassy in Bangkok to request entry into the country to see her, potentially for the last time. After 3 weeks of back and forth with the relevant authorities, she was granted permission to enter Laos via the Vientiane-Nongkhai bridge. But her brother had called, just as she had made it halfway to Laos, that her mother her passed away. Upon arriving at the Lao border, she pleaded with the authorities to permit her to attend her mother’s funeral but the latter was adamantly insistent on abiding by the 14-day quarantine rule.
“I told my relatives not to wait for me and to proceed with the funeral ceremony. I was glad that I was able to be present on Lao soil when my mother ascended into heaven on the 10th of August.”
She recalls that the health authorities at the border were quite informative and encouraging. She had wanted to be quarantined at one of the hotels designated by the government to be quarantine centers but they were too expensive (and she hadn’t booked one in advance). Neither did she want to stay at one of the government quarantine centers for fear that no one would be available to deliver food to her during her stay. Finally, she made the decision, along with about 70 of other travelers on the same journey to Laos, to enter into the state quarantine center.
Phonsamai recounts that the Covid-19 Taskforce sent three large army trucks to escort incoming travelers to the quarantine center: one for men, another for women and children, and the third for luggage. Thirty minutes later, they had arrived at a facility that had previously been an ASEAN shooting range training grounds in KM27. The center was manned by armed soldiers who strictly observed quarantine rules, permitting no one in or out.
A taskforce official based at the center came to greet the new arrivals and explained that there was an entire building for men and another for women, while families were assigned a separate compound as well. No more than 3 people were assigned to one room.
She described the rooms equipped with fans. There were three thin mattresses and three used pillows. Blankets and bedsheets were not provided. Fortunately, one of the girls she had been rooming with asked her relatives to buy some bedding and other supplies for her.
She recounts that the bathrooms had heated water and inside the bathroom were black bag for each person filled with essential supplies like soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, laundry detergent, and sanitary pads (for women), a cup, and eating utensils.
In the evening, army officers would call a meeting whereby they informed everyone of the rules and regulations – maintain social distancing, wear masks, avoid leaving rooms, practice good hygiene. Women were urged not to wear shorts. Outdoor exercising in the evening was permitted.
In the following days, Phonsamai recalls that three meals were handed out at a designated location per day at 8am, 12pm, and 6pm. Each person had to go and collect her own meal. Upon collection, temperatures were taken and recorded by officials on individual sheets. Each person was responsible for their own sheet (which was distributed upon crossing the border). She noted that the meals were tasty, large and varied every day. It was a combination of sticky rice or steamed rice with one main course and fruits or other desserts. There was a drinks station, equipped with hot and cold water. Coffee and tea could be prepared easily. There was a very small convenience store that sold a number of items. It was possible to order food from outside but all orders had to be made, at one’s own expense, through the army personnel. Alcoholic beverages were not permitted.
She describes the Covid-19 testing procedures:
“We were told to open our mouths really wide and they took a cotton swab (similar to the ones you use to clean your ears, but longer and thicker) and swiped a sample from deep within our throats. It was slightly painful and gave a slight gag feeling.”
When asked when the Covid-19 results would be available, the official replied that if an ambulance vehicle did not arrive the next day, then the results were probably negative. She then inferred that the people with whom she had been traveling were free of the virus.
Phonsamai also notes that a blood test was performed, checking for HIV infections. The results were ready within 15 minutes. Those that were HIV positive would be given medication for free.
X-rays were also performed to check for respiratory illnesses. Medication (free of charge) would be given to those who were reported to have any of these illnesses.
On her seventh day of quarantine, she wrote:
“Personally, I’m glad I was able to quarantine here. While it’s not as convenient as one’s own home, it has everything I need. There’s electrical outlets so I can plug in my laptop to work. No worrying about food, I eat whatever is provided. The meals are good and pretty large – more than enough. My roommates would often take the leftover rice and leave it to dry, to be used as fodder for their chickens. On some days, the power goes out and the water stops running but the army personnel promptly takes care of it when that happens. I meet so many new people from different places. I received free Covid-19, HIV, and other respiratory illness testing, which I would have never gone and done in any other circumstance. At least, I no longer have doubts about that. I’d like to tell all my fellow Lao people who wish to return home from abroad, not to be afraid to be quarantined. The experience has been pleasant. There is electricity for use and we are within reach of mobile data signals. While there are armed guards, it does not feel like a prison. They are here for our protection. And there are doctors on standby looking after our health at all times. After all is said and done, I’ll have interesting stories to tell my kids.”