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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLACampus Safety

International students share experiences in self-quarantine after returning home

Thera Boonyamarn, a second-year international student, quarantined for 14 days in her home in Thailand. (Courtesy of Thera Boonyamarn)

By Maddie McDonagh

April 13, 2020 8:04 p.m.

The same plain, cream-colored walls, the same long windows and the same brightly lit computer screen made up the whole of Thera Boonyamarn’s scenery for two weeks.

When she arrived home to Thailand on March 28, after two international flights and one domestic flight, the second-year economics student was picked up by her mother at the airport and immediately ushered into a government-mandated self-quarantine period at her home in the south of Thailand.

She set herself up in a small section of her house that included her bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen – the area where she would spend the next 14 days in almost complete isolation.

“Thailand has been really strict with their quarantine measures, especially for people who are arriving from high-risk countries,” Boonyamarn said. “I was actually pretty lucky that I was even able to get on my domestic flight because I had just come from Japan and America.”

More than 3,400 undergraduate international students attend UCLA, and some returned home after spring quarter classes moved online. Dozens of countries are imposing nationwide travel restrictions and lockdowns, with many enforcing 14-day quarantine periods for travelers returning from abroad.

A number of international students scrambled to make decisions about flying to their home countries with the knowledge that a two-week isolation period would begin upon their return. The perceived safety and comfort of home eventually won out for many students, and they made the long journeys back to their families.

However, some faced a long wait alone in quarantine before they could completely rejoin their families.

More than 2,000 miles away from Boonyamarn’s home in Thailand, Brian Wong, a first-year business economics student, and his brother entered their own self-quarantine in a Hong Kong hotel.

A few days after Wong arrived in Hong Kong on March 16, the city declared all arrivals would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Despite avoiding the requirement, Wong and his brother, who also attends college in the United States, opted to conduct a sort of self-quarantine anyway, staying in a hotel for two weeks to avoid infecting his family and only leaving for essential items.

Christine Ow, another UCLA international student who chose to return home, began her 14-day quarantine March 23 in Singapore, she said via email. The second-year political science student arrived in Singapore before a surge in imported cases from people who had been traveling internationally and was able to serve her two-week-long quarantine at home with family, she said.

Boonyamarn’s first week in isolation took its toll as she adapted to quarantine. The symptoms of the disease were always in the back of her mind, and she often found that her thoughts wandered to her health while she went about her daily routine.

“The first week is when the symptoms are the most prominent. It (was) really hard to concentrate, … and I was really jet-lagged,” Boonyamarn said. “Watch lectures, take notes, and then eat, sleep. Yeah, that’s about it.”

Boonyamarn enrolled in four classes this quarter, and spent a lot of time during her quarantine watching lectures.

As classes moved online for the spring quarter, many international students have faced the unprecedented issue of dealing with classes in a very different time zone. Boonyamarn said the majority of her lectures have been recorded, but she has classes at 7 a.m. GMT+7, or 5 p.m. PST the previous day, three days a week. Most weekdays she watches lectures from 7 a.m. to noon, takes a lunch break and then works on assignments.

“It’s made me realize how much I appreciate in-person teaching because remote learning is really difficult,” she said. “I would much rather have a TA or professor explain something to me in person.”

Although adjusting to this new reality has been challenging, things could be far worse, Boonyamarn said.

She said many of her professors have been very accommodating. One instructor even created a separate section for international students in different time zones, she said.

While Boonyamarn filled her waking hours with schoolwork, Wong’s quarantine ended before spring quarter began. He said he felt unproductive for most of his quarantine time and would have liked the distraction of school.

“I feel like, if there was schoolwork, it would have kept me kind of occupied,” he said. “It wouldn’t make me think so much about missing my family and missing my friends.”

Other forms of diversion during quarantine included a computer or mobile device.

When she wasn’t watching recorded Zoom lectures, with few other options, Boonyamarn spent most of her time on screens.

“At one point, I got a headache from being on the computer for too long because I was watching lectures for like four hours, and then I worked out with videos from YouTube, and then I watched Netflix after that,” she said. “I’m on Netflix way too much because that’s like the only thing you can do.”

Her parents, who made the decision to quarantine themselves in a separate location from their daughter, stopped by their home each day to drop off food and supplies in a specific spot for Boonyamarn to pick up after they had left.

“My parents would drop food in front of the door that separates my part of the house, and then they would give me a call to pick it up like five minutes after they leave,” she said.

Health officials in her province called to check in with Boonyamarn halfway through her quarantine period, and then again on her 14th day to confirm she had experienced no symptoms.

Additionally, Thailand has been using an app to keep track of people who are self-quarantining. When Boonyamarn arrived in Thailand, she downloaded the app and filled out personal information, including recent travel details and the location of her quarantine, which was sent to her provincial health office, she said.

The most challenging part of her quarantine was the total isolation, she said.

Most of the time, she felt cut off from the world. She often felt overwhelmed when she woke up each morning to 20 to 30 emails, many from UCLA.

“From the 10th day forward, it really starts to get to you mentally,” she said. “There are just walls everywhere, and you’re always on your computer or phone because that’s the only method of communication.”

Boonyamarn tries to keep in touch with friends electronically, but different time zones make it difficult.

Ow said she also felt the negative effects of the physical isolation from her friends in Singapore.

She rarely gets to see them when off at college; and now, in quarantine, she still can’t.

“It was very frustrating and as much as I could rationalize everything I still felt ‘wronged’ by the world,” Ow said.

As Ow finished serving her quarantine period April 6, Singapore entered into a phase of containment called “circuit breaker,” similar to California’s “stay-at-home” order. This meant that citizens were discouraged from leaving their homes and many non-essential businesses were closed, she said.

“Ironic that the day I was free, there was nothing to do outside, not that I was planning to go sightseeing right after,” Ow said. “I really wanted to just get out of the house and take a walk, so for lunch that day instead of ordering in I went out to get lunch for myself.”

Wong reunited with his family and marked the end of his and his brother’s self-imposed quarantine with a special family dinner.

“We could eat at the same dining table for the first time since I’d been home, which was kind of nice,” he said. “Being able to eat good food again – that was the best.”

Boonyamarn’s isolation period officially ended Saturday at 4 p.m., but she chose to continue until the next morning to be safe. Her parents returned to their home Sunday evening.

She celebrated the long-awaited end of her quarantine by going for a drive around the local beach and treated herself to som tam, a traditional Thai papaya salad.

“I’ve (been) living on air conditioning and (a) laptop, so I just want to put my computer away and go for a walk anywhere,” she said. “Even grocery shopping, I’ll take it right now.”

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Maddie McDonagh | Copy chief
McDonagh is one of the 2021-2022 Copy chiefs and occasionally contributes reports to News. She was previously a 2020-2021 slot editor and a Copy staffer from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year communication and English student from the San Francisco Bay Area.
McDonagh is one of the 2021-2022 Copy chiefs and occasionally contributes reports to News. She was previously a 2020-2021 slot editor and a Copy staffer from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year communication and English student from the San Francisco Bay Area.
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