Taiwanese COVID-19 survivors urge quarantine compliance

Mai Chia-shuo (left) and Mai Wen-ta (right) on board the Diamond Princess (Photo courtesy of Mai Chia-shuo)

TAIPEI (CNA) — A Taiwanese father and son who endured a two-month ordeal in quarantine on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, being treated for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Japan, followed by self-isolation at home in Kaohsiung, have a simple message for the 50,000 Taiwanese currently under home quarantine: Stay at home — your cooperation could save lives.

In an interview with CNA — the first in which Taiwanese COVID-19 survivors have agreed to disclose their identities — 85-year-old Mai Wen-ta (麥文達) and 49-year-old Mai Chia-shuo (麥家碩) recounted their experience with the disease and explained why they think such public health measures are necessary.

The pair’s ordeal began on Jan. 20 when they set sail from Yokohama, Japan on the Diamond Princess.

The ship, carrying 3,711 passengers and crew, including 24 Taiwanese, made stops in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan and Okinawa. On Feb. 4, however, it was quarantined in Yokohama Harbor, after it emerged that a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong later tested positive for the virus.

As the Japanese authorities began testing the passengers, the Mais were told to remain in their small, windowless cabin. After only three days in the room, Mai Chia-shuo said, he began feeling an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, which he described as “like being stuck inside a coffin.”

To cope with the isolation, they watched a livestream of the view outside the ship on their television, while friends on board whose cabins had a balcony sent them daily photos of the sun.

Within days, however, Mai Wen-ta began suffering nosebleeds and coughing up blood. They reported these symptoms to health authorities aboard the ship, but were told he would have to remain in quarantine unless he had a fever.

At that point, said Mai Wen-shuo, “My main concern was getting my father off the ship” to get medical treatment.

On Feb. 10, he wrote an open letter to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in which he described his father’s deteriorating health and pleaded for help.

The letter was widely covered in the Taiwanese media and drew a quick response from the government, which arranged for doctors to treat Mai Wen-ta and test him for the virus.

Both father and son were subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19 — on Feb. 13 and 17, respectively — and were treated at Japanese hospitals over the next several weeks.

After they were cleared of the virus, the pair returned to Taiwan on March 10, where they underwent another 14 days of self-health management in Kaohsiung to ensure that they posed no risk to the community.

Having come through the experience, Mai Chia-shuo told CNA of his frustration at seeing news reports about people ignoring their home quarantine orders.

Such precautions are worth the sacrifice, Mai Chia-shuo stressed, which is why he stayed home, despite testing negative, and missed out on long-awaited reunions with family and friends.

In the two months since the Mais boarded the Diamond Princess, the COVID-19 outbreak has burgeoned into a global pandemic, with over 600,000 cases and 27,000 deaths reported as of Saturday.

In Taiwan, meanwhile, the number of cases has surged in recent weeks, as an influx of students and travelers have returned from the pandemic’s new hotspots, including Europe and the United States.

To the 50,000 Taiwanese who, according to Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) statistics, are currently under home quarantine, Mai Chia-shuo could only implore: “Stay at home to protect yourself and protect others — that’s the best thing you can do.”

More personally, Mai Chia-shuo said, the last two months have taught him to value the time he is able to spend with his family, after previously living overseas for more than two decades.

“I used to put everything off until tomorrow,” he said, but after this “I want to hurry up and do what I should, and not leave behind any regrets.”

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