My (Miserable) Experience in South Korea’s Mandatory 7 Day Quarantine

I recently underwent the mandatory 7-day quarantine that South Korea imposes on all foreign travelers in addition to the negative PCR test required to fly into the country. Foreigners are assigned to a room in a hotel-turned-quarantine-facility upon arrival, and aren’t allowed to leave their rooms during the entire duration of their quarantine. Meals are delivered to the room 3 meals/day, a PCR test is given upon arrival, and once prior to departure. The price is 120k won/day (~$100). Prior to this, the quarantine requirement was 14 days.

When I joked to a friend that I was basically going to prison, he responded that this is worse than prison because at least in prison you’re allowed to leave your cell every now and then to go outside and socialize with others.

This was one of the toughest experiences of my life, and I will never undergo this again if I can avoid it. I’m convinced that this strict quarantine is inhumane, and very damaging to one’s physical and mental health. Although it’s been a couple weeks now since my release and life is back to normal, I will never forget this experience, and I hope that governments will be more considerate of the negative effects of quarantine and try to make quarantine more reasonable, if not eliminate it altogether except when absolutely necessary. If every politician were forced to undergo this quarantine, I imagine the quarantine would be much more humane or eliminated altogether.

The absolute worst part of the quarantine is not being able to leave the room at all during the entire duration of the stay. If guests were allowed to leave their rooms even just once per day, that would make an enormous difference. I felt physically and mentally terrible not being able to leave the confines of my tiny room. There was a large empty park next to the quarantine facility, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t have been allowed to go outside every now and then supervised – even if forced to wear a bodysuit and masks. COVID-19 has been shown to not transmit outdoors in open environments with social distancing, so there’s no reason they couldn’t have accommodated this other than pure negligence. If a quarantine facility were in a city with no park nearby, I would argue that the quarantine facility should instead be in nature since that would make for a much more pleasant and healthy experience. During the quarantine I was wondering why we were housed in the city (Incheon) rather than by a mountain or forest where we’d be able to actually go outside without endangering anyone.

Even if allowing guests outdoors in nature wasn’t possible, there’s no reason guests shouldn’t be allowed to leave their rooms every now and then to go to common areas, or even to just roam the hallways of empty floors for exercise. This could all be supervised (even if just by security cameras), and times could be set to ensure that guest outing times wouldn’t overlap if maintaining the social isolation was desired.

Social contact would’ve also been nice amongst guests who’ve tested negative and are in the same cohort. Deprivation of all in-person human interaction was one of the more difficult parts of the experience. There’s no reason there couldn’t have been common areas set up for socialization, perhaps with body suits required, or glass walls separating people. Even just a phone or video chat could be set up on an intranet within the facility to add a little bit of fun to an abysmal experience.

Since I don’t think it’s surprising to anyone that this kind of strict quarantine is miserable, I’ll just summarize my learnings and anything unexpected

1. Quarantine was not as productive as I expected. Happiness is vital to productivity

I thought that at least I’d get a lot of work done being trapped in a room for 168 hours straight, but I actually didn’t get much done. If anything, I think I actually got less work done than a typical work week because I found it so hard to focus and was so miserable. It’s hard to be productive when you’re miserable. Normally when I’m not feeling productive I’ll go for a walk outside or something, but being trapped in a room leaves you with no escape hatch. I’m the type who prefers working remotely from coffee shops and coworking spaces because I’m way more productive and happier there, so it was very difficult to get work done in that room. I’d get sick of the room and staring at my computer screen, which would lead me to feeling that if I must suffer here, I might as well try to do something enjoyable instead of work.

2. Dopamine Addiction / Unhealthiness of too much screen time

It’s no question that modern technology like social media can be addicting and harmful. Unfortunately it becomes much harder to escape this addiction when one is literally trapped in isolation inside a room. At least under normal circumstances there’s the escape hatch of being able to go for a walk outside to reset one’s mental state, but in quarantine that’s not possible. When I wanted to escape the screen (laptop, phone) and get some badly needed exercise, I’d end up pacing my tiny room like a madman, which wasn’t particularly effective in alleviating my misery.

I ended up falling into the dopamine addiction rabbit hole of constantly refreshing social media feeds like Reddit and Youtube, and checking my phone for notifications – something under normal circumstances I’m usually pretty good at limiting since I usually have my phone face down on silent mode and even airplane mode. 

Despite not having watched porn in 3+ months, my boredom and misery led me to giving in and watching it, if only to distract myself from the monotony of being trapped in the room. One session led to another, and it practically became a daily sin. Thankfully a week since leaving quarantine, I’ve at least rid myself of this at best useless, at worst destructive, habit.

3. Lack of Stimulation and physical activity = bad

This is pretty self-explanatory so I won’t waste too many words here. But I definitely now appreciate the power of what a simple walk can do for one’s physical and mental health and happiness. Not being able to do the simple act of leaving my tiny room left me miserable and almost feeling physically ill. My chest and heart felt stiff from the lack of exercise. My secret illegal excursions escaping my room became the highlight of my day, until I was caught by security camera and threatened with deportation if they saw me again.

4. Prisoner dynamics – Shut up and take the abuse

One problem I noticed with prison type dynamics is that if a prison guard abuses you, there’s a good chance you probably just have to take the abuse. Stand up for the injustice, and you might be punished even more severely. As a justice-oriented person, this was infuriating. I’m not going to claim I was abused or anything, but there were moments when I wanted to stand up for myself in protest, but had to control myself knowing that at the end of the day my freedom was in their hands, and any protest could backfire and get me deported and banned from the country.

5. Freedom felt more numb than euphoric

During the quarantine I fantasized and dreamed about my release. I thought my day of freedom would be this euphoric event, of returning to reality so grateful for my freedom, the smell of fresh air, being able to exercise again and taking advantage by running 10km, with new life and energy instilled in me, etc. Instead when finally leaving my room and getting on that bus, I just felt numb. Not happy or sad, just numb. Had my quarantine just been a day or two, I might’ve left it feeling euphoric. But by 7 days I just felt numb. Of course I was glad to be out, but it wasn’t the ecstatic release I’d expected.

5. Brain’s ability to forget and shed negative thoughts

During the quarantine I felt the most miserable I’d felt in memory. I felt a strong hatred towards the Korean government. I pretended to be a political prisoner to make it feel more bearable. When joking to my parents that I was pretending to be Nelson Mandela on a call, they responded that Nelson Mandela said something very honorable upon being released from prison, which they couldn’t fathom me saying. I responded that my release would be like the South Korean movie Oldboy where the wrongly imprisoned main character upon release vows to seek revenge.

But now a couple weeks after release, my life is back to normal and quarantine is simply a distant memory rather than being some trauma. If I didn’t make such a conscious effort to ensure that I never forget my misery during quarantine, I might’ve forgotten how bad it is – just like I think most people despise the education system during high school but then years after graduation look back on it neutrally or even fondly after their brain sheds the unpleasant memories of being forced to complete hours of pointless homework assignments, learn stuff they don’t care about, and be chronically sleep deprived. When I was in high school I vowed to never forget the pain and injustice of the education system, and during quarantine I vowed to never forget the pain and injustice of it.

I personally think this mandatory quarantine is complete overkill for a virus who’s latest variant Omicron is not particularly lethal, and a virus with an infection fatality rate of <0.2%. However if such a quarantine is necessary, I believe in its current state it is inhumane, and more effort needs to be made to make the quarantine more tolerable, if only for the physical and mental health of those who must undergo it. It is ludicrous to optimize for COVID containment without considering the side effects of such policies.

Here are my recommendations for making quarantine more humane if it is deemed to be unavoidable:

1. Allow guests to go outside and exercise at least once per day – for physical exercise and general mental health. Ideally the quarantine facility should be in nature such that this is easily feasible, or at least have some outdoor space like a courtyard. If outdoors for whatever reason isn’t possible, then at a minimum guests should be allowed to leave their rooms to go to some common area and/or hallway even if just once per day.

2. Larger rooms. My hotel room was way too tiny. We’re paying $100/night for these rooms that we’re trapped in for 7 days. The least they could do is get us decent-sized rooms.

3. Allow guests the option to socialize with others in the same cohort. Remember everyone has to get a negative PCR test prior to flying, a PCR test upon arrival to the quarantine facility, and another PCR test prior to departure. I think it’s reasonable to allow optional socialization with other guests, even if through glass doors and with guests in full body suits.

I hope that governments will be more considerate to the harmful physical and mental repercussions of quarantine, and do more to make the experience more humane.

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