'I have never felt such terror in my life before': When one S'pore family gets hit by 2 Covid-19 cases

Stories of Us: Sara shares her experience of both her brothers testing positive for Covid-19.

Jane Zhang| March 29, 01:21 PM

It's the stuff of nightmares: Finding out that a family member whom you've been quarantined with for an entire week has tested positive for Covid-19.

This was what happened with 25-year-old Sara (not her real name).

Her brothers Jon and Tim (also not their real names) have both been diagnosed with Covid-19, after the former returned home to Singapore from an overseas work trip to Europe.

Speaking to me over Skype on Day 14 of her home quarantine on Tuesday, Mar. 24, Sara, who works as a data scientist, told me about the overwhelming fear that the situation brought on, how she dealt with it, and what she has learned in the process.

covid-19 family A photo of a dresser in Sara's room, 14 days into quarantine. Photo courtesy of Sara.

Older brother tested positive

It all began when Sara's older brother Jon, who is 26, developed a fever late at night in early March, one day after he returned from a business trip to Europe.

In the morning, Jon went to the doctor for his fever, where he was conveyed by ambulance to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) to be tested for Covid-19.

Jon was found to be clear of pneumonia, so he was sent home to await the test results.

He was also told to remain isolated in the meantime, which meant the people living with him — Sara, Tim, and their mother — had to make adjustments to their living arrangements.

At the time, Sara, Jon, and Tim shared the common bathroom while the latter two shared a bedroom.

Sara and 23-year-old Tim decided to move into the master bedroom with their mother, so that they would not come into contact with Jon.

The next morning, the family received a call that Jon had tested positive and would be picked up to be warded.

At that time, Sara admitted, they didn't yet fully grasp the seriousness of Jon's diagnosis and its implications:

"For instance, the moment he left, we all went into his room to get stuff out. Like, why, right? I think we just did not think through it fully.

Of course, we washed our hands and we sanitised the things that we took out, but we still went right in, waltzing into his room. And that became a source of stress later on too."

Once Jon was taken to the hospital, Sara, Tim, and their mother didn't know what to do about sanitising the areas — his bedroom and the common bathroom — all of which were potentially contaminated.

They decided to block them off, and continue using the master bedroom.

The next day, however, all three were issued quarantine orders, meaning they cannot have physical interaction with one another either.

Tim shifted to the master bedroom, Sara stayed in her bedroom, and their mother moved to sleep in the living room.

Younger brother comes down with high fever

And then Tim came down with a slightly elevated fever, on the same day the quarantine order was issued.

At about 3am, his fever surged above 38°C, and he was conveyed to NCID to be tested.

This put Sara and her mother in a difficult position in terms of their next steps: there were a number of contaminated areas in the house, including Tim's and Jon's bedroom and — more crucially — both the common bathroom and the master bathroom:

"And my mom and I are like, sh*t what do we do now? Because, I mean, if you think about it, he likely has it because he and my older brother share room. Right? What are the chances are randomly getting a fever, a high fever the day after?"

Much to Sara's relief, her employers were understanding of her being away from work, and not doing work from home either, in the initial stages of this period.

"So they were very very supportive. Of course, I'm pretty sure that losing two weeks of productivity, for me as a worker, is going to impact things like my performance. Like, it is going to, there’s no doubt about it. But that's just another stressor that I will deal with, like, in a day's time."

She reached out to the National Environment Agency (NEA) for guidance on what to do in this kind of situation and they directed her to their website and dropped off some cleaning supplies, such as bleach, latex gloves, and masks for them to use.

At that point, Sara told me, she and her mother decided to avoid the master bedroom and bathroom, and instead focus on cleaning the common bathroom.

Unfortunately, the bleach did not come with dilution instructions, and so for Sara, who had hardly ever bleached a bathroom before, the experience turned out to be quite a memorable one:

"I made it way too strong, and I was coughing the whole time. Like, if I wasn't gonna get sick from this virus, I'm probably gonna get a sore throat from inhaling all the bleach."

Amidst all the madness, Tim was sent home and his test came back negative. But his fever persisted, and so he was sent to NCID a second time for another round of testing.

While he was at the hospital, Sara and her mother hired a professional cleaning service to disinfect the whole house.

covid-19 family Photo courtesy of Sara.

The priority was the master bedroom and bathroom, so that Sara's mother could move back in.

Being over 60, her mother is in the higher-risk age group, explained Sara. Therefore, it was imperative that she had her own space, just in case another family member was infected.

Back at NCID, Tim's second and third tests also came back negative, and after being warded over a weekend, he was again sent home.

Second brother tested negative three times despite sustained fever

Even though Tim's Covid-19 test results — all three rounds — came back negative, Sara believed there was a strong likelihood of him being infected since he had shared a room with Jon prior to Jon testing positive.

Thus, rather than being a source of relief, the negative tests became a source of stress, fear and frustration for them, as the family could not do anything about the situation until the test indicated otherwise.

As a result, that first week of quarantine with Tim at home was extremely terrifying for Sara, more so than she had ever felt in her life:

"This is genuinely, like, I have never felt such terror in my life before. I truly have never felt that way for an extended period of time."

Her biggest fear? That her mother might get infected. The possibility of her mother getting very sick, or even dying from the virus, was too overwhelming for Sara to contemplate.

“Just the thought of that is…", she said, pausing, "...a lot".

"It's like every moment, I would be making a list of, you know, what are the steps we need to take when we go to the bathroom? What are the high-touch areas we need to disinfect? What time did we last mop the floor? When do we need to mop the floor again?

And, of course, since my little brother was home as well, what are the chances of testing negative when you have it? All these things."

covid-19 family One of the lists put up around the house by Sara. Photo courtesy of Sara.

covid-19 family A list of precautionary steps to take in the bathroom. Photo courtesy of Sara.

Unlike others in quarantine or on Stay-Home Notice (SHN) who may be able to explore their passions or relax, Sara was obsessed with minimising contact and possible contamination with her mother, if she were to end up infected.

She would mop the floor three times a day, constantly wash her hands before and after doing anything, and wear gloves and a mask while in the kitchen.

"Every day was basically like: Wake up, take temperature, and then prepare to mop the floor. And then mop the floor, and then wash up and then prepare breakfast — and that takes a long time.

And then usually after breakfast, you have to use the washroom, so that takes a long time again. And then after that, suddenly it's lunchtime and then go out to prepare lunch again.

So it was it was really just doing those normal daily things, but everything took a long time."

Tasks that would normally take only a few minutes would now, with all the additional precautionary steps, take far longer.

For example, preparing breakfast, which normally took Sara 20 minutes, would now require 40 to 45 minutes. Even a simple trip to the toilet would take 15 minutes.

In the initial week, Sara wasn't able to stomach much food due to the anxiety and stress and in the initial week, she barely ate anything.

"The food I was eating was, I would put a block of tofu in the fridge and microwave it, and then put soy sauce on it and eat that", she said.

covid-19 family One of Sara's meals. Photo courtesy of Sara.

Brother tests positive for Covid-19 only after fourth test

Sara's fear and anxiety over the situation meant she found herself constantly doing research to find out more about the virus.

“Every time there was a new update or something, I would just Google the sh*t out of this stuff”, she explained.

And this, she reckons, definitely took a toll on her mental health.

Her constant fixation on possible points of contagion and ways of reducing the risk of transmission gave her frequent panic attacks.

“Obviously, when you're scared of it, right, you try very, very hard to understand things. And that's one of the biggest struggles, because no one understands this fully yet.

…Even now, most authorities are still not sure. So, if (the) authorities are even not sure how to properly quarantine people, how are you supposed to do it effectively in your own home?”

On Thursday, Mar. 19, one week after first coming down with fever, Tim was sent back to NCID for a fourth test, where he finally tested positive for Covid-19, confirming what Sara had believed all along.

The news, surprisingly, did not result in an anxiety attack. Instead, Sara said, she felt grateful because Tim would finally get the treatment and care he needed.

"I was actually so relieved when they finally warded him and kept him. Like, please get these people out of our house. Because we can't monitor them the same way a hospital can, and if anything develops suddenly, you know, we were not there to see it."

Friends came forward to help buy groceries

One important thing that got Sara and her family through this tough period of quarantine, though, was the constant support they received from friends and family.

Throughout her time in quarantine, Sara says she was able to stay in constant contact with her friends, and were privileged to have people supporting her and her mother throughout.

One of her friends, she said, dropped by three separate times with hawker food and groceries for them.

In addition, Sara's aunt and neighbour both generously helped make sure that they had everything they needed by dropping off groceries and other necessities.

"Everyone who we asked, even if we asked for something, like just one thing, they would bring a whole bunch of stuff. We were not [lacking] anything".

covid-19 family A photo of one of the grocery drop-offs. Photo courtesy of Sara.

“It’s not about you. It’s about everyone around you.”

Sara says the biggest thing she has learned from her experience is that young people need to stop being complacent about the virus.

Firstly, being young does not guarantee you won't get infected.

She referred to her brothers, who were both in stable condition and had only mild symptoms at the time, as examples.

“So they’re both young, healthy people. They’re not the fittest people,” she said with a chuckle, “but they are both young people, and they have been warded for a long time.”

Second, young folks need to think about the people around them, especially those who are more vulnerable.

"It’s not about you. It’s about everyone around you”, she said.

“It’s not about us young people. It’s about the fact that you bring this sh*t home to your parents, right? You’re not the one who is at risk here.

People really, really need to realise that even if you’re not at risk, you put other people at risk.

There are two things you have to do. One is don’t get infected, and the other is don’t infect other people."

To this end, Sara took to Facebook to share the lessons she learned on how to clean and sanitise one's house in order to protect one's family.

Her post included a list of important advice and tips including a reminder to sanitise phones and keyboards regularly, some notes on NEA guidelines on how to use household cleaners, multiple reminders to wash hands, and, of course, detailed information about how to use bleach.

She wrote:

"It took me a long time and a lot of frantic reading of different things to realise that I didn’t understand fully how to prevent infection within my own house... I strongly feel it is a moral responsibility that people (who are able to do so) adopt this lifestyle change."

"The government is not going to come in and hold your hand and help you bleach your bathroom"

She also warned against people getting too comfortable in assuming the government is handling everything on its own.

"I think a lot of people here are settling into a lull of ‘the government will protect us'.

By all means we can't let fear drive us away from leading our lives, but I feel it is very, very, very, very important for people to realise that when this comes into their homes, the government is not going to come in and hold your hand and help you bleach your bathroom".

Sara told me that she has had friends ask her how long the government took to clean their house for them, or why they didn't let them stay somewhere else while their house was possibly dangerous to live in.

But that offer was never on the table for them.

Sara's family experience happened weeks before the Ministry of Health announced that the government would be arranging for hotel rooms, transport from the airport to hotels, and meals for Singaporeans and Singapore Residents returning from the UK and the U.S. to serve their SHNs.

Because they were not afforded that extra support when her brother first returned home as what turned out to be an imported case, they had no choice but to learn the ropes on their own.

But she also recognised the privilege those of us in Singapore have in being able to access quality healthcare during this time, without having to worry about the cost of hospitalisation, testing and treatment:

"I'm actually so so so grateful that this thing is free, and it's available, and we don't have to worry about the cost of all of this.

Like, being warded for 14 days is not cheap. It's literally half our household, right? If we had to pay for that, that would be insane. It's so much.

And amongst all the other stresses, and of course, again, the system is not perfect and there was quite a bit of uncertainty around it at certain parts, but overall, the fact that we don't have to stress about — like, 'Are they getting good healthcare? Do we have to pay for it?' — at least we don't have to stress about that."

And while she doesn’t think that people should lock themselves inside, away from their friends and family, she does feel strongly that certain activities, such as group gatherings, need to stop.

“This stuff is able to spread very, very, very fast. And all you need is two SAFRAs, and then you have an outbreak”, Sara said, referring to the cluster of 47 cases (at the time of writing) that have been linked to a dinner function held at SAFRA Jurong.

First brother in stable condition, second has returned home

As tough as the situation has been for her family, Sara is grateful that the worst seems to have passed.

Looking back, she said that it has helped reiterate her love for her family:

“And, I guess, it really made me realise like how much I love and care for my family. Like, I didn't realise that I would feel that kind of fear for my family because I’d never felt it before.”

Jon is in stable condition now. While he is no longer showing symptoms, he remains warded as he continues to test positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, Tim has fully recovered and returned home on Mar. 25, but Sara informed me that they are continuing to take precautions with him at home.

Both Sara and her mother also had their quarantine orders extended by one week, to account for the time that Tim was living at home before he tested positive.

In the meantime, the four of them continue to check in on each other through their regular WhatsApp calls.

Sara laughed, telling me, “My mum is very happy with this new feature she’s discovered. She only realised that we could do group video calls like two days ago, and she's so happy!”

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or making the world a better place in their own small way, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Top photos courtesy of Sara. Quotes were edited for clarity.