Yamini Perera, a 26-year-old Project Coordinator with the Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum returned to Sri Lanka following a meticulously planned dream vacation in the United Kingdom. A global pandemic forced her to retreat to a quarantine facility in Vavuniya. She recollects her unexpected and humbling experience.
An Unexpected Ordeal
After spending a three-week wintry holiday in the United Kingdom (UK) in the company of a lovely British family whom I have known since I was a youngster, I was eagerly waiting to get back to my home country.
“We are facing a national emergency; we seek support from the passengers to take necessary precautionary actions amidst the outbreak of COVID 19.” I was leisurely having my morning tea, just a day before my flight to Sri Lanka when I saw this email on March 15. I was flabbergasted.
I was certain my heart stopped beating for a while, when numerous grim pictures began to form in my mind. “Will I be stuck in the UK for a long time? What if my flight gets cancelled? Will I have to stay here counting days, longing to meet my family?” I was puzzled, unsorted, anxious and even out of control.
There were reports of flight cancellations and border closures due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Europe as well as Asia. However, my worst fears of being trapped in the UK didn’t come true. Instead, I was informed by the airline staff at Heathrow Airport that all travellers from the UK will be sent to quarantine centres. Just like that, my innocent hope to see my family as soon as possible, was in stark contrast to my reality. I was not prepared accept this new reality. With countless harrowing thoughts running amok in my mind, the idea of returning home suddenly filled me with dread.
When I finally boarded the airplane, almost half of the cabin was empty. Some passengers seemed disquieted and I noticed how some passengers shifted uncomfortably to prevent themselves from being sneezed or coughed at. I remember I shut my eyes in anguish for a while, when I heard a conversation about ‘quarantine’ by a few passengers and I quickly plugged in my headphones to temporarily escape from the bitter reality that awaited me.
My thoughts focused on those amazing moments I had spent in London amidst bone-chilling, icy winds, majestic hills and rolling farmlands of the English countryside and the Daffodils! Those lovely Daffodils. Almost 12-hours later, I landed at the Bandaranaike International Airport around 5.30 on March 16, 2020.
An eerie feeling left me contracted. Instead of the traditional Sri Lankan greeting of ‘Ayubowan’, the passengers were greeted by officials in hazmat suits and masks. The very first words I heard from the officials were “You have two options to choose from. You can either undergo the quarantine process here in a quarantine centre or you can go back to the country from where you came”. My stomach sank!
As I exited the plane, more than 10 people from the airline staff were holding placards indicating the names of several countries. Making this strange situation worse and melodramatic, there were media personnel holding their cameras in front of the aerobridge as if to welcome a gang of criminals escaping a foreign land. To my great dismay, the first placard I saw indicated “England” shattering my final slight hope of seeing my family. The passengers who came from the UK and other European countries listed in those placards were taken separately to clear immigration, a separate place away from the airport terminal. I looked around to see if it was only me who was anxious. But everyone around seemed anxious.
When a public health official announced that all the passengers would be mass-quarantined for 14 days, a tense situation arose, there was a huge commotion as some of the passengers began to express their surprise and frustrations. Some tried to explain that the UK was not a Covid-19 risk country, while some argued that this decision is not consistent with the information given by the government of Sri Lanka. I felt so helpless that finally, I sat down, perplexed, plugging both my ears with two fingers.
As a young woman who had never before heard of the term ‘quarantine’, the entire concept was alien to me. My mind was painting grim pictures of the prospective quarantine centres because none of us had any clue as to what to expect. When I contacted my parents, they were relieved that I came back safely and they convinced me to undergo the quarantine process, despite the fact that they too wanted to see me soon. They told me that I should undergo the quarantine process in order to support the nationwide emergency. Feeling frustrated and hapless, I ritualistically followed the instructions given by the army officials and the public health authorities. After filling in a health-declaration form and undergoing fumigation, about 50 of us passengers were escorted into buses around 12.30 pm. I had a scrumptious meal with spicy Sri Lankan curries at the Rangiri Dambulla International Cricket Stadium. This, to my surprise helped diminish much of my travel fatigue.
It was around 5.30 pm when our bus reached the quarantine centre, the Periyakadu Army Camp in Vavuniya. My first impression was a mixed one. We were missing essentials such as toiletries since none of us were prepared to be quarantined. However, we were provided with facilities to buy our essential items from a mobile welfare shop which we named the ‘Jangama Kadey’.
Our days were ritualistic. The day began when two doctors or nurses came for temperature checks at 8.00 am. The medical team often reminded us to maintain a distance of one metre apart from one another and to wash hands regularly. It was literally the daily sermon. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks were provided on time. When I returned home, my mother was surprised to hear that I had consumed certain foods which hardly even tasted while at home; especially, ash pumpkin and coriander (‘koththamalli’).
Initially it was hard to be positive about the extraordinary situation I was in, but I was gradually getting used to things in the camp by meeting and interacting with some wonderful people, gifted to our midst. Inzy, Mudzi, Ash, Amitha aunty, our wonderful nurse from the UK and I were one family there. The quarantine facilities were mostly divided based on gender but there were two gents in our dormitory who had to stay with us because their families were in our dormitory. Often, us girls, spent our evening playing a game of cards or cricket. Seeing the sight of giant squirrels, troops of monkeys on huge trees was a daily occurrence.
What I will never forget is the scorching heat! There were countless times I woke up with a shudder early in the mornings by the sound of a peacock knocking away at the sheetrock or a group of aunties running after a shrub frog which had entered the dormitory. Inzy, Mudzi and I were nocturnal creatures, so we often tiptoed out of the dormitory and indulged in deep conversations under a tree, till midnight and beyond sometimes!
Looking back, I truly cherish all the bitter-sweet memories I have acquired in this quarantine centre. I learnt how to make the most of a difficult situation and that lesson will stay with me forever. I appreciate the effort taken by the Sri Lankan military personnel who went the extra mile to make us feel at home, far away from home, to make us comfortable despite all the risks they had to take.
Recalling the 14-day experience, it made me think that out of the people who were accommodated in mass quarantine centres across the country, there is a fair probability for a ‘healthy’ person to contract the infection from others who may be carriers of the virus at centres. The absence of clear and consistent information during this time made us to form a WhatsApp group with those who are housed in different quarantine centres to help us share our experiences, personal feelings and exchange knowledge regarding diagnosis, treatment and prevention of COVID-19.
On a lighter note, I have proof now, by certificate, to say that I have been through the quarantine process and been proved negative for COVID-19, which many of my country’s citizens are yet to earn.
I would like to acknowledge Prof. Padmasiri Wanigasundera, Chairperson, Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum and Prof. Abhaya Balasuriya, Director Administration, SDJF for seeding this idea to write about my quarantine experience. Thanks, Hasarel, my beloved batch mate for encouraging me to maintain a daily diary during those aimless 14 days.