Quarantine diaries: 15 people on stay-home notice pose for photos in front of their phones

SINGAPORE- Quarantine and stay-home notice (SHN) were de rigueur for all travellers entering Singapore during the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 70 hotels having served as SHN dedicated facilities since March 2020.

Through portraits taken via remote photography in mid-2021, The Straits Times looks back at various stories of self-isolation at different locations - documenting experiences that may eventually be a thing of the past.

With easing measures, the maximum stay-home notice period for other incoming travellers has now been cut from 14 days to 10 days, while quarantine restrictions have been lifted for fully vaccinated travellers under the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) scheme.


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Jan Fong, 39, and her husband Jonathan O'Shea, 38
Day 12 of 14 | Citadines Rochor Singapore (Photographed on July 14)
Back from Malaysia

"We're international school teachers in Penang, and things were getting pretty crazy so we decided to come back to Singapore. I'm 33 weeks pregnant. We felt it would be much safer to have the baby back home in Singapore where my family is.

When we went over to Malaysia a year ago, we also had to quarantine for 14 days. We've been locked down quite a lot in Malaysia. This time round we're very lucky. I requested for a room with a kitchenette because I was quite concerned about the food not being very healthy. I've had a lot of deliveries from my parents - healthy food, lots of fruits and vegetables.

We still maintain a daily routine while in quarantine. We wake up early, exercise, keep ourselves busy, making sure we have our baby stuff ready as well. Being this pregnant, I also needed a place to sit with a backrest, so it's good that this apartment has a separate sitting room."


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Ayrwin Gill, 33
Day 3 of 14 | JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach (Photographed on July 13)
Back from Netherlands

"My job as a Second Officer in the merchant navy requires me to fly overseas every six weeks. I work for Cadeler onboard a wind farm installation vessel Wind Orca, and we deliver commercial scale offshore wind projects across Northern Europe. The crew's nationalities are European, and I'm the only Singaporean, so I fly to the Netherlands to join the vessel from there.

This is my fifth time quarantining because of work and I've stayed in different hotels. I feel that being onboard helps me cope with isolation. The cabin is much smaller than a hotel room, so I'm very used to the space.

No one wants to be put in a room and kept away, but I think it's mind over matter. Since it's something I cannot change, I make the best out of it. Quarantine helps with my jet lag and recovery from fatigue and I'm glad I still have a job in the pandemic. My family sends me my guitar and laptop. I normally use the time to do the most boring things - organise my emails, play online games with friends, Netflix, brush my teeth with my left hand, sing."


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Calisa Chong, 45, and her son Calix Han, 12
Day 3 of 14 | Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel (Photographed on July 15)
Back from Germany

"We wanted to come back in June, but quarantine was 21 days back then, so we cancelled. We only decided a week ago that we wanted to come back, then we started booking air tickets and planning. My husband had a job posting to Germany in July 2019 and we followed him there. I'm a homemaker in Dusseldorf, occasionally doing volunteer work at my son's school. My son studies at an international school there and it's the summer holidays, so we decided to surprise our family and friends back in Singapore.

The hotel overlooks Ion Orchard and we are on the 18th floor. The room is spacious enough and we're always by the window looking at the scenery and getting some sun. I'm Hakka, so I really miss the Hakka thunder tea rice cooked by my dad. It's priceless. Calix misses beancurd and Toast Box."


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Sarah Hazwana Mahani, 36
Day 12 of 14 | Swissotel Merchant Court (Photographed on July 23)
Back from Uzbekistan

"I'm an executive with the competitions department at the Football Association of Singapore. I was in Tashkent for three weeks with the team from Tampines Rovers who were competing in their first Asian Champions League, helping out with administrative matters and liaising between the club and the Asian Football Confederation.

I was surprised at the room and thankful that there's space for me to walk around and there's fresh air to breathe. I downloaded as many books as I could, because reading was one of the things that kept me occupied. It does get mundane after a while, so I rotate between reading and watching whatever shows I can find on television and on my laptop. Facetime calls with family and friends really helped as well. When I was younger I had chicken pox and had to be quarantined before, but it was very different.

My friends and colleagues sent me food, flowers, chocolates and cupcakes, so I'm really thankful. One of my best friends lugged a carton of Milo from the supermarket at VivoCity here for me and that was so sweet. I enjoy time by myself and like the silence, so I'm actually coping very well.

Quarantining in Singapore is an experience in itself. It's really interesting because you have your meals sent to you and when you open the door, the one who sent it has already disappeared. Many government sectors have put in an effort to make sure we are safe and everyone outside is safe. They have taken a lot of measures to make sure that we are safe, we are comfortable, we have food to eat and that's something you don't see in other countries."


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

(From right) Debra De Silva-Sun, 39, Kervin De Silva, 59, and their daughter Isabelle De Silva, 10
Day 12 of 14 | Swissotel The Stamford (Photographed on July 14)
Back from Switzerland

"We came back for a holiday because my parents and friends are here. We have been living in Switzerland since 2008. I work as a project manager there and have been working from home since February 2020. We were last back in Singapore for my brother's wedding and it was right at the start of the craziness in Asia, and it hadn't taken Europe by storm yet. When we came back, we were already on heightened alert, wearing masks and all. By the time we headed back to Switzerland, the crisis suddenly exploded in Europe.

Before coming back, I was quite anxious about quarantine. I saw my counsellor and got a letter from her requesting two rooms. In the end we did get adjoining rooms, which is a real godsend because I'm working full-time, so it would have been a nightmare if we were all stuck in the same room.

The Singaporeans' language of love is really food. So in the days that we've been here, we've never been hungry because family and friends have sent food. So much so until we slowed down our ordering of quarantine food. It's also great that we can order in. There's a microwave in the room which is helpful because we use it to heat up the food. We also rented a treadmill and spin bike to stay active.


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Mucius Yeo, 47, and his wife Krystal Loo, 44
Day 4 of 14 | Capri by Fraser, China Square (Photographed on July 18)
Back from Indonesia

"I'm a senior operation manager and my wife is a senior engineer. We both work in a shipyard in Bintan and have been there since the start of the pandemic. The main reason for coming back to Singapore was to receive our vaccinations and will be working from home after that.

The Stay-Home Notice (SHN) at the hotel is enjoyable and nice because we are lucky to be assigned to a good hotel. It also provides us with enough rest as we have been working through the pandemic.

Our family members also keep delivering food and goodies to us, so we are very lucky. They even "visit" us even though we can only wave to them from our hotel room windows. We also learn the meaning of minimalism as we are surviving the two weeks out of two suitcases."


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Julius Lee, 39
Day 10 of 14 | The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore (Photographed on July 21)
Back from Brazil

"I'm an engineer working on a project in Brazil since February. When Covid-19 started, I was working on another project in Dalian, China then. This is my second time doing Stay-Home Notice (SHN). It's nice to be able to look at the National Day Parade rehearsals and fireworks right in front of me, something to kill my boredom.

I actually packed a travel kit with things that I will bring for quarantine. I got my exercise equipment - resistance band and a portable pull-up bar. I also have a blender, Nintendo Switch and a small pot I bring everywhere with me. I try to cook and with the pot I can do hot pot anywhere.

From my experience on the ground in Brazil, the pandemic is a medical emergency that has exposed the rich and poor divide. Where cities are generally coping ok, the situations in the poor neighbourhoods are bad because they do not have resources to protect themselves. A lot of my colleagues got Covid-19, but for the ones who are young, they can recover quite fast."


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Wilson Chan, 42
Day 6 of 14 | Swissotel The Stamford (Photographed on July 14)
Back from Qatar

"I've been working in the Middle East - UAE and now Qatar - since 2008. Currently I'm the director of markets at Qatar Free Zones Authority. My purpose for returning to Singapore on this trip is to see my parents and reconnect with friends after almost eighteen months.

Pre-pandemic, I would be back in Singapore three times a year and I have never missed a Chinese New Year in those years. The world has changed much since Covid-19 happened and I am fortunate to be fully vaccinated in Qatar since April.

When the bus turned into Stamford Road, I was thrilled beyond words! I have never stayed in the Swissotel before so imagine my joy when I stepped into my room for the next 14 days. It felt like I won the quarantine lottery. Quarantine need not be a waste of time if one can devise a schedule and plan meaning tasks that one might not find time to do before - I rented a treadmill and ran everyday, finished two books, did some sketches of the skyline from my balcony and ordered almost all the local hawker fare I craved for."


ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

James Soo, 19
Day 12 of 14 | The Ritz Carlton, Millenia Singapore (Photographed on June 26)
Back from Basel, Switzerland

"The family and I moved to Basel, Switzerland in 2017 when my mum received an offer to relocate her there. She and my younger sister moved in January, and if I remember correctly, the rest of us followed sometime around August. It was definitely a big change, adjusting not only to an unfamiliar language, but also the sheer alieness of a foreign culture. Switzerland seemed like some distant, faraway land bordered by mountain ranges, and hiding the vast wealth of its financial system behind the walls of its banks and steely-eyed clerks. I finished my exams in May 2021, having been delayed six months behind my cohort back in Singapore, and now return to complete National Service. A great many of my male friends have already finished their basic military training, and now are serving their vocations.

I was fortunate to end up staying at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, with a rather impressive view and lodging, to say the least. I hear stories of some others less lucky than myself, but I can't speak on their behalf. The food was more than edible, and I didn't end up ever ordering any food in, although my friends and family were kindly, very eager to drop off snacks and other bits and bobs."


ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Keith Lien, 37
Day 10 of 21 | Fairmont Singapore (Photographed on June 9)
Back from France

"I'm a station manager with an airline company and based in Paris since December 2019. I came back to Singapore for vaccination, to visit my family and hopefully to witness the birth of my firstborn.

This is my second time doing Stay-Home Notice (SHN), the first was last October at a boutique hotel in Tanjong Pagar. It was tough because I didn't know I would be claustrophobic. I had to resist the urge to just walk out of the door and woke up breathless on the first night. It got better after that once I accepted internally that once the door closes, I can't go anywhere. It felt very confined back then because outside the window was a big water tank, so it was almost like being surrounded by four walls.

This time round it's much better because there's a balcony where I can go out for fresh air. Food-wise, it is also much better, so no complaints. People never really talk about mental health during quarantine, but it can actually be quite depressing. I get regular calls this time from a Fairmont staff every two to three days to find out how I am and what I need and encourage me to hang in there. These little things actually make a very big difference."

Epilogue: How the photos were taken

Taking a profile photo is difficult enough in person. Taking one when you cannot be in the same place as the subject presents an entirely different challenge - and that’s not even taking into account the fact that we had to shoot all the photos with their camera phones.

We would first discuss the photoshoot via video call and they would need to let me “recce” their room. Here, Mr Keith Lien gamely shows me around.

We talk about where I would like him to sit for the photo. and where he should position the phone. 

We need to sort out a lot of things prior to shooting - angles, location, light availability, posing, and composition, etc. - even before the photo is captured. I can’t be there, so I’m relying heavily on verbal communication with the subjects and getting them to understand me. For Mr Lien,  I chose the desk where he spends much of his time on SHN working.

Only when all that is done does the photoshoot begin. For Mr Lien, the shoot was done over FaceTime on my iPad. In this case, each shot is just a screengrab.

For some of the other subjects we used an app that allowed us to control the cameras on their phones remotely. It allowed us to obtain better quality images using their mobile camera as compared to low-resolution screen grabs. Throughout the shoot, the subjects could only hear me, not see me, so they were taking directions - whether it’s adjusting their camera positions or changing their poses - verbally. 

The pandemic presented photographers with an unusual problem - how to shoot in a socially distant way without sacrificing intimacy. The solution required some unconventional thinking and a lot of patience. The concept of remote photography allows us to do shoots without having to be physically in the same space, which helps in situations of quarantine and places photographers do not have access to.

Although it still has its limitations and nothing beats physically being there, remote photography opens up possibilities while being apart.

Correction note: An earlier version of this story said that Madam Debra De Silva-Sun works as a private manager. She works as a project manager. We are sorry for the error.