The first thing I do when I find out that I have been exposed to a Covid positive person is test my sense of smell.
Long before Covid, when I was young, when I had played those “Which of your five senses can you do without?” parlour games with equally inebriated people before dawn, acquaintances treating them as ice breakers and friends as some deeper connect, I was always surprised by the popularity of the answer “smell”.
No. Impossible. I would easily give up my sense of touch or taste before smell. To try and explain it here would be an admission that the mind can always read the heart, that one can always put into words what one feels. (Inebriated, we often try.)
Pandemic parlance has injected into our everyday a stream of new words, including corona, mRNA, and ivermectin. The one that scares me the most is anosmia.
I am sitting in the Millbrae Station just south of San Francisco. I have travelled from Singapore to the US to see friends and family, my first trip since the start of the pandemic, which I had booked as soon as I got my second Pfizer shot in July, eager for a return to the world we once knew.
A college mate has just dropped me off at Millbrae after two hours together, my soul singing from the nourishment of old buddy camaraderie.
Then I get the text. XXX was symptomatic and has just tested positive; and since you saw them recently you must get tested too.
I just got my vaccine shots, surely I couldn’t have caught it?
There is only one thing in my bag that has any smell: gummies. I pop open the container and take a deep breath.
Yes. I can still detect the faint sour fruit. Phew.
Looking back, after several weeks of emotional ups and downs—small ones, not big ones, I’m one of the lucky ones—I realise that at that moment I felt much relief.
But it was so fleeting. Life was about to become more complicated.
The instruction guide for the home antigen rapid test (ART) contains many warnings about potential false negatives. If you don’t dig around your nose long enough, possible false negative. If you don’t keep the testing card flat on a stable surface, possible false negative. If you’re wearing a MAGA hat, possible false negative.
As I am reading all this, my mind is half on my flight out of San Francisco the next morning, on the friends I might see in LA. Knowing that a positive result will scupper the trip, a part of me starts to wish for any kind of negative, even a false negative. My body feels fine, I can still smell, why should I isolate? I now feel bad about that, but it was just one of the many conflicting thoughts racing through my head.
Ten minutes into the fifteen-minute test, I am feeling confident. Only the upper red line is visible. I believe I’m going to pass, and so I start making dinner plans with Jackie. Five minutes later, a faint line is now visible on the lower side. It is so faint that I have to look closely, again, squinting. I take a photo of it on my phone and then zoom in on it. Is it positive? This uncertainty is annoying. I pour myself a big glass of rye, as Pras, Jackie’s husband, takes a second look.
He confirms it. Positive. I have Covid-19.
Or do I? Almost immediately the thought that it might be a false positive enters my head. Like so much other Covid “knowledge” floating around these past eighteen months, I do not know how or why I came to believe that home ARTs are vulnerable to false positives.
Some of the people I speak to over the next few hours feed this impression. Everybody knows somebody who tested positive on the home ART and then negative later on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
So for the next four days, until I get the confirmed PCR positive, a part of me clings on to this hope that I actually don’t have Covid-19, which messes a bit with my mind, and my travel plans.
This is despite Pras telling me that false positives are rare. False negatives occur, especially if one does not conduct the test well, but false positives are rare.
But if so, why do some people test positive for the home ART but then negative later on the PCR? It could be because of the testing time lag, says Pras. The amount of SARS-CoV-2 virus in their respiratory system might have been higher initially, when the ART was done, but then subsequently it might have dropped before the PCR test.
That is the more likely explanation. A false positive is the less likely one. So if you test positive on the home ART, just assume you have Covid-19.
I couldn’t have picked a better place to catch the virus. Jaclyn Kuwada and Prasanna Jagannathann are close friends from my Berkeley days. I’ve stayed with them and the kids many times, and they’ve stayed with us in Singapore. Almost too good to be true, Pras is also an infectious disease doctor. And, to be stuck in San Francisco for a few more days? There are fates far worse.
Of course, like anybody who gets Covid, I invariably feel guilty about the inconvenience I’m causing to everybody around me. Despite repeated assurances, it will take a week for this feeling to wash over.
“Should I check into a motel?” I ask Jackie and Pras, not wanting to overstay my welcome, not wanting to potentially infect anybody else in their house.
Don’t be silly, stay here.
I feel bad about the inconvenience.
Not at all. We feel bad that you’re spending your trip stuck in a room.
We will repeat this self-effacing, apologetic exchange a couple of times over the next ten days. I feel the need to show my self-awareness about the imposition, even if the hosts never consider it such. Maybe there is something Asian about all this, or maybe not; cultural influences are complex. (Why do people in Toronto say sorry all the time, a New Yorker later asks me.)
But the Jagannathanns represent only my immediate circle of inconvenience. Beyond them are the assorted friends whom I have met over the past week and whom I now have to individually inform. I repeat some variant of the message I just received.
“Sorry to give you bad news, but I tested positive, you now have to go check yourself”. If any of them test positive, they will in turn have to send their version of that message to their contacts. In this way the message itself is a virus, spreading across digital social networks that mimic the coronavirus’s footprint.
I find this process frustrating because I have no idea how individuals and their families are going to take it, the bland directness of health-related text messages masking human emotion. What did they really mean by “Thanks for telling me”?
Some of the people I had met had insisted on extra precautions, like sitting outside and keeping our masks on, because they tend to the elderly. “Sorry mum, the travelling Singaporean gave me Covid” is the sort of clichéd nightmare that I dread.
Yet my friends in the Bay Area mostly just shrug; Covid is endemic, this is the world we now live in. Some joke that as soon as I had left the cocoon of Singapore for the wilderness of the US, I got Covid. (In a bizarre twist, the US has recently issued a travel advisory on Singapore.)
Covid detectives emerge around me, eager to trace the virus’s path. At what time did you meet XXX and who else was there? Did XXX’s family also test positive? Did you get it on the flight from Seattle? Or maybe the Uber driver gave it to you?
The Covid detectives start connecting the dots. It is all well meaning and sometimes thrilling in a CSI-ish way. But this quest for the group’s Patient Zero is also fraught with difficulties, I realise, because some people consider it more of a taboo than others.
Does it matter if I gave it to you or if you gave it to me? For some, yes; for others, no. Though I am fortunate to have easy, painless exchanges with those around me, I can see how this relative difference in Patient Zero guilt may lead to tetchy conversations.
Some feel a heavier burden than others about being Patient Zero. Some will attribute more blame than others to Patient Zero’s own behaviour. We all, I realise, have such different perceptions of individual agency in terms of infection. To what extent is it my own fault—e.g. not masking, not washing, hugging strangers—that I got infected, as opposed to environmental factors beyond my control?
It’s impossible to know, of course, especially in a world that for the past eighteen months has been clouded by anti-vaxxer misinformation, government lies, policy flip-flops and competing research findings. Moderna has longer-lasting efficacy than Pfizer, it’s announced, midway through my isolation, causing one friend and me to wonder if I had gotten the wrong vaccine.
Every friend I meet seems to combine a respect for establishment scientific rigour with a hunger for anecdotal evidence, as they build some personalised Covid mental map based on the experiences of friends and family.
It takes about a week for all those exposed to me to get their results. Every single one tests negative. That I do not infect anybody—to my knowledge—is one of the highs of my Covid journey.
The general consensus is that my two Pfizer shots have done their job: they have stopped me getting sick, as I am asymptomatic throughout; and they have stopped me spreading the virus.
(I do have some relatives who will contend that my salubrious condition has nothing to do with vaccines and everything to do with Jesus; bless their souls, but I hope they get their shots soon.)
After ten days in his guest room, Pras clears me for travel to New York City. Taboos about recovered Covid patients also vary, so I face a fresh set of social challenges as I emerge from Covid isolation. Should I be transparent about it with friends whom I will be meeting? Do they have a right to know that I only recently recovered from Covid?
Following another lengthy chat with Pras about the moral dimensions of catching Covid, I decide to tell everybody I’m meeting in the week ahead. After I share my long story with them on WhatsApp, I wait nervously for their replies. I once catch myself name dropping in my bid to reassure them: “…the friend I’m staying with, who is an infectious disease doctor at Stanford, has cleared me for travel…”
Was there a need to mention that Pras works at Stanford? Jackie and I joke that the Indian uncle in me is emerging, i.e. listing a person’s CV upon introduction.
Some friends in NYC want me to pass another test when I get there before they’ll meet me; others prefer to meet outside; and still others, the ones most closely aligned to my own wavelength, start joking that I’m probably the safest person to meet now.
Ahhh, yes, “super immunity”, a phrase that I hear several times from well wishers. When I find out that I haven’t infected anybody, I become even cockier. The virus stops with me.
Ya, right. Sekali tomorrow I catch the Full Power Variant.
Throughout the ten-day isolation, Jackie and Pras give me the most attentive and indulgent quarantine service, despite them having to also attend to their three kids and their day jobs. My meal plan consists of, among other homemade treats, a tuna poké bowl; smoked pork ribs and smoked salmon (on a bagel) courtesy of their new Traeger grill; freshly made dosa served on a steel plate; biryani; air-fried idli chunks, a yummy nouveau-Tamilian jam; and okonomiyaki, when sous-chef Jackie feels the need to flex her Japanese ancestry. This being San Francisco, the odd kouign-amann, pork belly banh mi, falafel plate and Super Duper burger are also magically delivered to the house.
Covid has been tough on you, quips my sister in Singapore, after seeing photos of my quarantine food. I do not tell her about the 1.75l Costco-sized bottle of Bulleit Rye that Pras leaves in my room; or the fact that every day at five Jackie brings me a glass full of ice, initially only upon request, but thereafter in an anticipatory fashion, like the nurse who knows her patient.
The extra time together allows us, masked and sufficiently distanced, to discuss pressing global issues, like Squid Game and MJ vs R Kelly. If you were on the Glass Bridge on Squid Game, and the person in front of you hesitates, would you push them to their death in order to possibly save yourself and the others behind? I don’t think I could. Jackie would; she’s a survivor.
And on separating the art from the artist, that perennial dilemma, Pras posed a question to me that I haven’t quite resolved: what’s the difference between the sins of MJ, whom I still listen to, and R Kelly, whom I don’t? I still view the former as much less of a predator, much more of a victim, but perhaps I’m just blinded by his music, part of the soundtrack of my life. Pras has stopped listening to him altogether; Jackie still does early, pre-abuse MJ.
The point of all this is simply to say that I am lucky. Yes, I got Covid; but all that really meant is some extra time with my buddies, doing what we always do at home.
Others who get Covid may not be as lucky. Over the past few weeks it appears as if scores of privileged Singaporeans have rushed to book end-of-year holidays abroad.
I do wonder how many of us are prepared to get Covid abroad. Do you have the time and space and money to isolate yourself for ten days (or more) if you do? Do you have the flexibility to live and work abroad if your journey back to Singapore is delayed by weeks?
I test positive three times in six days—ART and PCRs—and then I stop testing. Although most recovered people test negative after a couple of weeks, some people can keep testing positive for weeks, even months. That can hinder your travel because different countries have different, fast-evolving, border restrictions.
At this point, it is strangely easier for me to fly to Canada, which allows Covid positive people in 14 days after their first positive, i.e. without a negative test, than it is for me to fly back to Singapore, which requires a negative pre-departure PCR test. I can understand both countries’ positions. Canada makes provisions for those who may keep testing positive long after they’ve recovered. Singapore has a zero-tolerance approach that makes no individual exceptions. I hope I can fly back soon—the fourth PCR test of this trip is on Monday—but I cannot say for sure.
I don’t mean to scare off travellers. I know many Singaporeans can’t wait to escape the claustrophobia of our tiny city. Many, like me, have family and friends abroad whom they need to see. And our economy, all our economies, could do with the tourist bump.
In New York City and San Francisco, everybody treats the disease as endemic. People take sensible precautions, but are aware that they might catch it anytime. People go for Covid tests on sidewalks with the same nonchalance as when they stick thermometers into their mouths.
You can catch it anytime, anywhere. Travel has changed. Covid means you can’t just pick your dates of departure and return and assume that all will be swell.
So do plan your trip with all that in mind. Pick a place that you don’t mind being stuck in for a couple of weeks more. And always carry around something with a recognisable scent.
You will remember the moment.
The last food photo is of the curd rice that Pras packed for me to eat on my flight to NYC.
Testing everywhere, including a drive-through PCR test in San Francisco
My captors. Spent a few days with them in Pismo Beach in mid September. Then drove back with them to the Bay. The last shot was taken over two weeks later, after ten days of isolation in that room. Miss them.