SINGAPORE: When former national swimmer Tao Li flew to Wuhan to visit her family for Chinese New Year in January, she had no idea a potentially deadly virus was spreading in her hometown.
She arrived in Wuhan on Jan 22, a day before Chinese authorities ordered a lockdown of the city to stem the spread of COVID-19. The virus has now infected more than 68,000 people and killed more than 1,600 worldwide.
“We knew there was a virus going around, but everyone thought it was in the hospitals, not in the streets or the city. The airport was still busy when I landed,” said the swimmer, who was one of 92 Singaporeans eventually evacuated from the city on a Scoot flight on Jan 30.
She spoke to CNA on Saturday morning (Feb 15) by the poolside at Temasek Club, where she runs her Tao Li Swimming Club.
Two days earlier, she had finally been cleared to go home after serving a 14-day quarantine order at a chalet in Jalan Loyang Besar.
A VIRUS IN THE AIR
While in Wuhan, Tao was still optimistic that the lockdown would be lifted after a few days, and that she would be able to go back to Singapore on Jan 26 as planned.
But her initial calm gave way to anxiety as news and rumours flooded Chinese messaging app WeChat.
“You read, and you begin to suspect that everything is true,” she said.
Tao spent most of her time at home in Wuhan, except for some quick grocery runs. “I still have to buy my daily needs. When I step out of the door, I wonder, 'is there a virus around me'? You get a fear deep in your heart,” she said.
She was eager to come home as she had coaching commitments in Singapore. On a friend’s suggestion, she contacted the Singapore Embassy in Beijing and was told to stand by for an evacuation flight on Jan 29 or 30.
Then, she was told that her mother, a Chinese national, would have to remain in the city. The 55-year-old had moved to Singapore to take care of her daughter in 2001.
“Of course I miss my mum,” said Tao. “This house feels very empty. I miss her voice … I see my dad sending messages on WeChat, telling me they are safe. But deep in my heart, I worry for them."
THE WAY BACK TO SINGAPORE
The night before her flight, Tao made her way to Wuhan Tian He International Airport decked out in a mask and gloves.
But she didn’t have to worry about passing an infected stranger on her way to the airport – the streets were empty, and only cars with prior approval could get on the major highway out of the city.
The airport too, was similarly deserted, save for the other Singaporeans departing on the same flight.
“We were the only group of people there. There were maybe six airport staff helping us to check in, and take our temperatures … The atmosphere was very tense, everyone seemed to be scared of getting infected,” said Tao.
The passengers went through multiple temperature screenings before being allowed on the Scoot flight. While the flight was scheduled for 3am, the passengers waited until 7am to board as the plane had to be disinfected.
The airline crew donned N95 masks and surgical gloves while attending to the needs of the passengers on board. Tao was full of gratitude for them.
“They knew the virus situation was getting worse, but they were still brave enough to fly us back to Singapore. I really want to thank them for their brave actions,” she said.
Tao was aware of the sacrifices frontline staff have to make – her aunt is among the army of healthcare workers battling the disease in a Wuhan hospital. She said she was upset to hear stories of discrimination against medical staff in Singapore.
“When I heard that nurses were asked not to board buses, I think this is very sad," she said. "Without them, we can’t sit here and have a normal life. We could all be sitting in places like a quarantine centre."
"We have to show appreciation for all those ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors."
When the Scoot flight landed in Singapore on Jan 30 at around 11.30am, Tao Li, along with the other passengers was screened before being sent to a Government quarantine facility at Aloha Loyang. The buses they were in were escorted by the police.
At the chalet, the Wuhan evacuees alighted from the bus one by one, and were given keys to their rooms. Initially apprehensive about the conditions of the quarantine centre, Tao was pleasantly surprised at the facilities provided.
“When I opened the door (to my room), I thought, wow. It’s a good life here. I told myself to just take this as a holiday,” she said.
Tao said all her needs during the 14-day stay were taken care of. Masks and thermometers were provided, and all three meals were placed at her doorstep every day.
Those under quarantine could even arrange for deliveries - which would be dropped off at the quarantine centre’s guard house, and later sent to their rooms.
Tao had a friend pack some lightweight clothes for her, as she only had winter wear in her luggage.
“You can order Grabfood, Foodpanda or bubble tea every day if you want,” she joked.
"WHAT A WONDERFUL LIFE"
She said the two weeks were a mix of boredom, and sometimes, anxiety - especially after some passengers tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Wuhan evacuees had to undergo nasal swab tests twice to check for the coronavirus. During the procedure, a thin swab is inserted through the nostrils to the back of the nose to obtain a mucus sample.
Although the process took “only a few seconds”, Two described it as an uncomfortable experience.
“When they inserted the (swab) all the way in, I started crying. It’s very painful actually,” she said. Five of the 92 evacuees were eventually confirmed to have the COVID-19 infection.
On Feb 13, the other 87 Singaporeans were finally cleared to go home.
“I was so happy, I couldn’t wait!” she said.
“Before this virus, I would think about being rich or famous ... Of course I still have dreams, but that slows down … Now I think about my health, my family, and the ones I love – those are more important than anything else.
“And when they opened the gates (of the quarantine centre), I just thought – what a wonderful life," she said.