COVID-19 and Mental Health: Life Inside an Isolation Hotel

By Lars James Hamer, March 4, 2022

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In China, before COVID-19 takes the fight onto the streets, the virus is fought in a rather peculiar setting: hotel rooms.

Isolation hotels up and down the Middle Kingdom catch the virus before it can spread. But what effect does voluntary isolation and working in the face of the virus have on the mental and physical health of these key workers?

China’s ‘zero-COVID’ policy tries to eradicate any trace of the virus as soon as it appears. A single positive COVID-19 test can lead to mass citywide testing. Lockdowns are imposed on districts, cities and even provinces in a heartbeat.

On a cold evening in January, a shopping center in Guangzhou was locked down because a woman who tested positive for COVID-19 briefly visited the mall. Guests weren’t allowed to leave until their nucleic acid test came back negative.

It was later discovered that the woman had received a false-positive result and didn’t have COVID-19 at all. 

The most painstaking aspect of the zero-COVID policy for many foreign nationals and Chinese people is closed borders. Some foreigners in China have not been able to return to their home country since the breakout in January 2020.

On the other hand, some Chinese nationals have been stuck abroad as the price of plane tickets home has skyrocketed. 

Any person who does return to China from overseas must undergo a period of quarantine in an isolation hotel, with some provinces imposing a whopping 28-day quarantine period.

The price of quarantine, even if it’s for an entire month, for the opportunity to see your family, may seem like a small price to pay. But what about the people who work in these hotels? Isolation hotels consist of staff members who voluntarily put themselves into quarantine and away from their families. 

“It’s a very serious situation, last night four people had a positive nucleic acid test, so we’re very busy” explains Phoebe Peng, a translator in an isolation hotel in Foshan, Guangdong Province. 

Staff in the isolation hotel reacting to the previous night's outbreak. Image by Pheobe Peng.

The four positive cases were Chinese nationals who had just returned from the Netherlands. As is protocol, they were immediately transported from the isolation hotel to a nearby hospital for monitoring and treatment, all of which takes place in a closed-loop containment ‘bubble.’

“When there is a new case, I’m always a little worried about the situation because I have close contact with the guests,” Peng told That’s over a WeChat call from her hotel room.

Peng graduated from university in Guangzhou in 2021 and, for the last four months, has been living in the quarantine hotel. 

As the sole translator for the hotel, Peng helps foreign guests check-in to the hotel, fill out forms and communicate with staff. From the moment they arrive, she is by their side. 

The isolation hotel in Gaoming, Foshan has around 200 staff, consisting of hotel workers, cleaners, medical staff and government employees.

Lin Huiwen is a hospital pharmacist who is regularly transferred to the isolation hotel. She is responsible for carrying out nucleic acid tests on guests and staff. She also checks surfaces and belongings for traces of the virus; a vital step in ensuring that the virus doesn’t leave the hospital. 

When we spoke to Lin, she had just finished a 24-hour shift in the hotel. From 8am until noon, she was helping staff deal with the positive cases they had just discovered by conducting nucleic acid tests throughout the hotel.

After that, she had to start her regular night shift. A lack of sleep under intense pressure has consequences on both physical and mental health. 

A quick selfie before work. Image by Pheobe Peng.

In the days after the discovery of the imported cases, one of Lin’s coworkers in the hotel fell sick. She had cold-like symptoms and a high temperature.

The worker was isolated in the hotel, with basic supplies such as food and medicine were left at her door. 

Another member of staff was transferred in to perform her duties. Fortunately, Lin’s colleague hadn’t contracted COVID-19. Nonetheless, the events of the preceding few days had a significant impact on the staff. 

“All of the high-risk staff were nervous,” Peng says. “At first, I thought it was fine, but then one of the medical staff said he was scared and asked to speak with the psychiatrist. That made me nervous too.”

“There is a psychiatrist in the isolation hotel who gives a psychological evaluation to all the guests,” explains Lin. “Some guests have moderate to severe mental health issues and even suicidal tendencies.”

Peng admits that working in an isolation hotel can have adverse effects on the mental health of workers. 

“We have to stay in a room for a long time and we can’t go out,” she tells us. “Sometimes I feel sad at night and I don’t know the reason. I have found that a lot of staff share this feeling.

“I used to talk to the psychiatrist and it really worked. As time went on, I found my own release through yoga, talking with my family and friends and thinking about the future. These make me feel much better.”

Peng is a fitness fanatic and, to occupy her mind during quarantine, she uses the hotel’s gym to make workout videos that she uploads to her WeChat channel.

This quarantine period will be her last. She plans to return home and prepare herself for a Spartan Race in Shenzhen in March.

She also believes that working in an isolation hotel is good for her career as she can use the experience to obtain her translator qualifications.

Pheobe goes for a run between shifts. Image by Phoebe Peng.

Despite her time in the hotel coming to an end, Peng admits that the last two rounds of guests have been the toughest. 

“When I stay at the hotel for a long time, I tend to think about negative things. During a recent stretch, I found myself talking to the doctor about my grandmother’s health. 

“My boyfriend was also having some problems with his business. My emotions weren’t stable and we argued a lot.”

While she gets breakfast and lunch provided for her and she doesn’t have to worry about bills or rent, Peng says a long stay in the hotel can grind you down.

“Christmas is a very important time in Western countries and Chinese New Year’s Day is important for Chinese people too, but I was alone on those days,” Peng recalls. “The guests had gone home, the staff had left and the next batch of travelers hadn’t arrived yet.”

Peng is originally from Chengdu, so during the two or three days between guests leaving and arriving, she can’t return home.

Lin, on the other hand, primarily works in a hospital and is only temporarily transferred to the hotel. This means that she doesn’t stay for the entire quarantine period and can go home to her family. 

When Peng initially got the job, she didn’t tell her parents because she knew they would worry. After a couple of months in the hotel, she let them know what she had been doing. Although they originally feared for her safety, after a while they felt proud that their daughter was brave enough to take such a job. 

On duty and ready to go. Image by Pheobe Peng.

“I think there is real significance to my work in the hotel, and I can practice English,” echoes Lin, who a few days after the four imported cases went back to work at the hospital.

Despite being the only one in the hospital to request to go to the isolation hotel, her manager keeps assigning her to hospital work; many hospital managers would rather send younger women without children or families into quarantine, Lin explains.

Peng and Lin are both responsible for fifth-floor guests, also known as the ‘high-risk group’. High-risk groups are usually made up of foreign nationals and ‘close contacts’ (someone who has been in close proximity to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19).

Guests in the hotel can often be difficult, and will refuse to do the nucleic acid test. Some even go as far as verbally abusing staff.

“Some guests know we need to do the nucleic acid test, but they try to resist” recalls Lin. “They will cry, scold the medical staff, complain, and cover their nose with their hands. 

“One man in his 50s swore at me and told me I was cruel; another one complained they couldn’t sleep at night because of the nucleic acid test.”

Lin goes on to explain that these customers are the hardest, and that she almost has to treat them like babies, praising them and coaxing them to do the test. 

Despite these difficult customers, both Peng and Lin have had heart-warming experiences in the hotel; lots of different guests have been very thankful for their service and will write them a personal thank you card (which is immediately soaked in disinfectant) and pose for selfies when they are leaving. 

The thank-you card already drenched in disinfectant. Image by Pheobe Peng.

“I really like serving the foreigners, most of them are really polite and appreciate the work we do.” Peng says, “I’m also happy for the Chinese people who come back home as they have been abroad for a long time. I think I’ll miss this period, because, even though it’s hard, it has been a learning experience.”

People in China are counting down the days until the country opens its borders again and they can freely travel in and out of the country.

However, if it wasn’t for isolation hotels like the one in Foshan, where staff stopped four imported cases from spreading throughout the city, we might be dealing with a full-scale lockdown.

Selfies with guests on departure. Image by Phoebe Peng.

[Cover image via Pheobe Peng]

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