S’porean Woman & Son Caught Covid-19 In Korea, Had To Stay On For 18 Extra Days — And It Cost Them An Extra $7,000 In Bills & Expenses
What happens when you catch Covid-19 while you're overseas? A Singaporean who travelled to Seoul recently recounts her experience.
What was meant to be an eight-day family holiday in Seoul turned out to be a 26-day stay for a Singaporean woman and her son who tested positive for Covid-19 there.
The plan for Cheryl’s* first family holiday after two years in the pandemic was for the 40-year-old sales manager, her husband John*, 47, and son Peter*, 12, to travel to Seoul under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme from Dec 4 to 11 last year. (*Names have been changed.)
Cheryl and Peter, who tested positive for Covid-19 in Seoul, ended up returning home only on Dec 29, 18 more days than planned; while John, who tested negative, had to self-isolate for an extra seven days in Korea.
All in all, the family racked up about $7,000 of additional expenses for their unexpected extended stay in Korea, almost double from the $8,000 that they’d originally budgeted for the holiday.
Speaking to 8 Days, Cheryl said the entire experience was “so traumatising”. From the moment they received their test results and figuring out next steps to overcoming language barriers and settling insurance claims, Cheryl recounted the entire emotional rollercoaster and shared her story with 8 Days.
It goes without saying that travelling during a pandemic is going to be quite different. For Cheryl, who’s made many trips to Seoul pre-pandemic, she was struck by how much quieter the streets are now. “A lot of the shops are closed. Even Myeongdong was so quiet,” she said.
Myeongdong (Photo: Courtesy of Cheryl)
It wasn’t just the shopping hotspot of Meyongdong. Formerly popular attractions such as Nami Island, Namdaemun Market and Petit France (pictured below) were also not quite how they used to be. “Petit France used to be very crowded. When we were there, it was so quiet,” she mused.
“Travelling now is very different for pre-Covid, much more different than I’d expected. You have to be mindful of any surfaces you touch, even the railings on the train, and keeping a distance from others,” Cheryl said.
Petit France (Photo: Courtesy of Cheryl)
“We were very careful wherever we went, always sanitised our hands, and didn’t go to crowded places. Even when we were shopping in supermarkets, we’d sanitise the shopping cart.”
While some tourists have faced difficulties getting served in restaurants, Cheryl and her family were fortunate enough and did not get turned away at eateries.
“Korea has their version of a TraceTogether but the restaurants we went to accepted it when we showed them our vaccination certs,” she said.
Entering malls, however, was a different story altogether. “You need to call a hotline to check in before you can enter a shopping mall. But it’s all in Korean so we couldn’t understand anything, so in the end we just didn’t enter and shopped along the streets instead. We didn’t mind because shopping in malls is more expensive anyway.”
A twist at the end of the trip
Things first took an unexpected turn when the family went to Incheon Airport to take their pre-departure antigen rapid test (ART), just hours before they were to check in for their flight back to Singapore.
When the test results came back, both parents had negative results, but Peter tested positive for Covid.
“[Two days before this, Peter] had fever, runny nose and a little bit of cough for about one day. I thought it was because of the cold winter weather, and that it couldn’t have been Covid,” Cheryl recalled.
The family did not board their flight. “We were panicking at the airport for about three hours, not knowing what to do next. We were only told to go home, but where’s home?”
They finally checked into a nearby hotel and went for a PCR test after that. Under the Korea-Singapore VTL regulations, travellers who stay in Korea for more than eight days would have to take an additional polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test there.
But what the family did not expect was having to queue outside a hospital in subzero temperatures for three hours for their PCR tests. “I think there was a big surge of Covid cases in Korea [due to Omicron] so there were many locals waiting in line as well,” Cheryl explained.
Logistical nightmares and language barriers
A day later, when their test results came back, Cheryl also tested positive for Covid-19, alongside Peter. Meanwhile, John still tested negative.
“I had a fever of 38.5 degrees and a very bad headache which lasted for a week. But I initially thought I had gotten a cold from queueing outdoors for three hours in the cold for the PCR test,” she said. “I also lost my sense of taste and smell and it feels like your nose is forever congested. I coughed a lot, like I was coughing out my lungs.”
“All the hospital told us was to go home, no one could tell me what the next step would be. We went back to the hotel and called the Singapore embassy in Korea for help, and told them that my son and I had tested positive.”
At the same time, they decided that John would fly back to Singapore first. “It didn’t make sense for all three of us to be stuck in Korea. And my son was going to a new school [when school starts in the new year], so he needed to settle school enrollment and to buy books and everything.”
John booked a new ticket on a VTL flight, but found out at the airport that he could not fly back until seven days had passed since his last contact with a positive Covid case. So back to the hotel he went, this time, checking in to a different room from Cheryl and Peter to self-isolate.
Meanwhile, Cheryl was in touch with local authorities to figure out what they had to do next. “I was in the hotel room with my son for at least three days not knowing what to do. [The local authorities] called me to get our medical history and condition before they decided if they’re sending us to a hospital or a treatment centre [for less severe cases],” said Cheryl. Calls were made to her Singapore line as she did not buy a local SIM card, and Cheryl estimated that she’s racked up a total phone bill of about $800.
Even then, it took several days before the next steps were firmed up. “My son’s symptoms started five days before mine. The local authorities said that they’d have to split my son and I up because they must separate cases based on [how long you’ve had Covid for],” she elaborated.
“I get it, because the treatment centres and hospitals have limited capacities, so since my son caught it earlier, it would mean that he could be discharged earlier. But where would he go alone after that? My husband can’t take care of him as he would still be in self-quarantine.”
Finally, Cheryl sought help from the Singapore embassy again. Both mother and son were brought to a treatment centre which attends to less severe cases, two days after their PCR tests. They were assigned the same room where they spent nine days.
Life in a Covid-19 treatment centre in Seoul
Of their nine days at the treatment centre, Cheryl recalled: “We were really well taken care of. The food they serve is really good. [Each meal] came with are four or five dishes with rice and soup.”
Food served at the treatment centre in Seoul. (Photo: Courtesy of Cheryl)
Though Peter was eating well, Cheryl did not have much to eat as she had lost her sense of taste and smell (and subsequently, 6kg from the whole ordeal).
One of the daily routines in the treatment centres was to report their body temperature and blood pressure on a Kakao app, as no medical staff would enter the room to physically check their temperature.
They also had to hand wash their clothes daily in the room. These, however, were not their existing clothes that they’d brought from Singapore, but new clothes that Cheryl called a family friend to help buy and send to her in the centre.
Cheryl explained that staff at the medical centre told them that they were not to wear the clothes they’d brought with them as they had not been properly washed, and could still have traces of the virus on them. “They told me to throw all my clothes and things away,” she said.
She finally came to an agreement with the staff that they’d put their old clothes in plastic bags, and store them in their luggage. The staff at the treatment centre then sanitised their suitcases and they were instructed to only open them after they were discharged and could wash them in a washing machine.
Discharged, but still unable to return to Singapore
Cheryl and Peter checked in to a hotel after they were discharged, but they could not fly back to Singapore yet.
Under ICA regulations at the time, anyone who contracts Covid-19 overseas will have to wait for at least 14 days from the day of their diagnosis before returning to Singapore [this has since been changed to at least seven and up to 90 days]. This meant that Cheryl had to stay another five days in Korea. By this time, her husband had completed his self-quarantine and was already back in Singapore.
By their own volition, Cheryl and Peter did not once step out their hotel room in the five days there. “Because Omicron [is very contagious], even if you’ve got Covid before, you could get it again. So we didn’t dare to go out even after we were discharged,” she said.
To be extra careful, they ordered room service and had all their meals in the hotel room. It ended up costing over $100 a day for the duo, on top of the $200 per night room charge they had to fork out.
But this was not the end of the tunnel yet for Cheryl and Peter. They still had yet to book new flight tickets back (they cancelled their original flight tickets back and received a partial refund from Singapore Airlines). Then news of Singapore authorities temporarily suspending sales of VTL tickets got out — that is, no new VTL tickets were allowed to be sold between Dec 23 and Jan 20.
She managed to snag two economy tickets back on a VTL flight on Singapore Airlines, just before sales were suspended. The VTL flight tickets were valid for travel even after Dec 23, as long as the ticket was bought before the temporary suspension kicked in on Dec 23.
Two days before they were due to return home to Singapore, Cheryl and Peter finally stepped out of their room for their pre-departure ART test. “Those two hours waiting for the results was so stressful. When the results came back negative, I hugged my son so tightly. We could finally go home!” Cheryl exclaimed.
Homecoming and insurance claims
The journey home was smooth, and Cheryl and Peter were reunited with John in Singapore on Dec 29, a hefty 18 days longer than what they’d initially planned for.
However, the family still faced the daunting task of claiming insurance. All in all, they’d racked up about $7,000 worth of additional expenses. This included new flight tickets for all three of them, extra hotel stays and meals, admission to a treatment centre in Korea and additional PCR tests and other miscellaneous expenses.
When we first spoke to Cheryl, she told us that they were still negotiating with their insurer as some claims had initially been rejected. A few days later, the couple said they would receive a payout of more than 60 per cent of their expenses.
Tips on travelling during the pandemic
“I thought I was so well-prepared for the trip. Before we left, I had printed out all the necessary documents and had five different folders for different documents,” said Cheryl.
“But I didn’t expect this trip to end up being so traumatising.”
Looking back, Cheryl admitted that there were things she’d have done differently. “I’d compile a list of the emergency phone numbers, including the Singapore embassy’s number. It’s always easier to have it on hand when anything happens, rather than have to Google everything,” she advised.
Another tip: Buy a local SIM card with a local number to call so as not to rack up hundreds of dollars in phone bills like she did.
“And if I had a bit more information about what to expect if I caught Covid-19 in other countries, it would be very helpful,” she said. “Then I’d think twice about whether I would travel or not.”
“I didn’t expect our first trip in two years to be such a disaster. Because of this incident, my son and husband are very traumatised and they've said they won’t want to travel until all the mandatory tests and quarantines are lifted.”