06 November 2020

A COVID Quarantine Odyssey (Guest blog)

Julia Zhu, China Macro Analyst, Matthews Asia

[As most of the UK is now in some form of lockdown again, here is fascinating insight into how China deals with the pandemic highly effectively.  This from Julia Zhu from Matthews Asia on her experience of travelling from Hong Kong to mainland China.]

When a new COVID-19 outbreak occurred in Hong Kong a month ago, I feared that the quarantine requirement from Hong Kong to mainland China would never be lifted. So I decided to go to China anyway—accepting the mandated 14 days quarantine—so I could visit my parents in Qingdao.

The direct flight from Hong Kong to Qingdao had been cancelled due to the epidemic, so I booked a flight to Shanghai. In order to qualify for boarding, I did a nucleic acid test in Hong Kong beforehand. From the moment I started filling in my detailed personal information to receive a “health code”, I smelt the air of quarantine. But that was just the first of many forms to come on this trip.

The Hong Kong International Airport was almost empty the day I took off. Not unexpected, but still shocking. On board and before take-off, a flight attendant taught us how to apply for another QR code for the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. We were also told that upon arrival, we would be required to take additional coronavirus tests immediately at the airport. The three options for testing are throat swab, nasal swab, and serologic test. Depending on where your flight originates, Shanghai’s local health administration decides which test you need to take. One flight attendant told us that he been tested for 25 times over the last 30 days.

The Pudong International Airport looked crowded compared to Hong Kong Airport. After landing, we were told that passengers from Hong Kong need to take two tests: the throat swab and the nasal swab, the latter of which turned out to be particularly painful. The long cotton swabs felt like two ferocious crab’s claws piercing through my nose all the way to the back of my head. It hurt so much I kept pushing them away, which only made the “claws” more determined.

At the arrival gate, all the passengers were regrouped according to which province they were heading to. There are 31 provinces in China, and each province had a table set up for registering the passengers coming its way. After all the data collection had been done again, we were asked to get on a bus to a quarantine hotel. Rumour had it that there were three different levels of quarantine hotels to choose according to your own budget, but when I asked, the staff hesitated a bit and firmly said ‘No’. Then I had an ominous hunch that we were being transported to a budget hotel.

After one and a half hour’s bus ride, we arrived at an express hotel in the middle of nowhere. Across the street from the hotel was a wholesale market for construction materials, which apparently had been abandoned for some time.

The quarantine time was clocked from the moment we entered the hotel. A complimentary package was prepared in my room, including bottled water, toilet paper, a clinic thermometer, a bottle of disinfectant tablets, and a pack of alcohol cotton for disinfecting the thermometer. A note reminded that I must report my body temperature twice a day through WeChat; the disinfectant tablets were for the toilet, not mouth. The hotel offered three meals a day. Ordering food for delivery from nearby restaurants were not permitted, but online shopping was allowed. My room was on the third floor. The windows could be opened, but only 10 centimetres-wide from each side—perhaps to keep me from jumping to escape?

Having had the first meal, I took out my cell phone, opened Taobao—an online shopping portal—and ordered a self-heating hot pot, some fresh peaches, instant vegetable soups, snack food, more bottled water, a yoga mat and two dumbbells.

Shandong provincial government telephoned me

On the second day, a government staff from Shandong phoned me. After confirming my personal information and the flight I had booked to leave Shanghai for Qingdao in two weeks, he suddenly asked me, “Are you sick? Your voice is low.” “No, I am not.” I raised my voice.

“You have a heavy nasal voice. Are you having a fever or catching a cold?”

“No, I haven’t. I have rhinitis…I lived in Beijing for 17 years. You know the air quality there wasn’t very good.”

The more I explained, the more suspicious I sounded.

“Well. Good to know you are healthy.”

He seems to be convinced and hang up the phone.

A Qingdao ‘Grid Worker’ telephoned me

A few days later, a woman phoned me and the number suggested she was calling from Qingdao. The woman introduced herself as the “Grid-based community worker” of my parents’ neighbourhood. I was told that local government subdivided the city/village into smaller zones, and assigned each zone to a person responsible for reporting activities to the local government on a regular basis. These personnel were called “Grid Workers,” or Wang Ge Yuan in Chinese.

The “Grid Worker” verified my flight to Qingdao and the exact address of my parents’ residence. She then told me what to expect once I arrived at the Qingdao Airport: a car would be arranged to pick me up from the airport to a quarantine hotel and three tests (the throat swab, the nasal swab and serologic) would be conducted once I arrive at the hotel. After a 24-hour quarantine period, they would do a second round of tests, but this time only throat and nasal swabs. They would then arrange a car to send me home after the quarantine and tests were done. I asked, “Why will you arrange a car to send me home? Can I just go home by myself?” I was worried and feared they would impose another seven or 14 days of “home quarantine” on me, which I heard were practiced somewhere sometime earlier.

“No,” the Grid Worker seemed surprised by my question, “we will arrange a car to send you home, because this is a part of the process the Shandong Provincial Government stipulates.”

In the end, the Grid Worker asked me to connect her on WeChat to facilitate communication. I found out that her WeChat alias was ‘Compassionate heart’ (ci xin in Chinese), with an icon of lotus.

But someone quarantined for 38 days

When I complained about my quarantine life in Shanghai in a WeChat group, a friend shared a story with me.

“A friend of mine finally got the tickets to return home from the United States with his family in May. I don’t need to mention how hard they tried to get the tickets in the first place. They landed in Guangzhou and were taken to a three-star hotel for quarantine, where they took nucleic acid tests once a week. About a week later, someone on the same flight was diagnosed, and they were only two rows behind the person. As close contacts, they were moved to a building still under construction for a new cycle of two weeks’ quarantine. Fourteen days later, their nucleic acid test results turned out negative and they were finally able to return home to Nanjing. I called to congratulate them, but found out that it’s not the end of the story. The family were escorted home directly from the airport in a police car and put in home quarantine for another 14 days. An electronic lock was installed on their door, and the alarm will be triggered if they tried to open the door without first reporting to the authority for permission. During the whole process, they had seven nucleic acid tests and quarantined for 38 days.”

“Not even a minute earlier!”

On the 10th day, a medical staff gave me the second round of tests. The test report—together with the quarantine certificate—would be handed to me when the quarantine was over. Later that day I received a WeChat message. Apparently it was sent from some hotel service staff to all of us quarantined residents.

“I saw from the monitor that someone just stepped out of his room and smoked a cigarette in the corridor. The quarantine will be finished in just a few days. Please hang in there, and do not leave the room!”

The last few hours of quarantine were the hardest. I couldn’t help calling the hotel service staff whether I could leave now, who relied, “Not even a minute earlier!”

“Passengers on 37J and 50C, please take your luggage and leave the airplane first!”

As soon as my quarantine in Shanghai was over, my “Shanghai health code” turned to green from red, which meant I was allowed to roam around the city freely. I tried to check in for the flight to Qingdao in advance, and found that the status was “checked in” and a seat near the isle was allocated.

When the airplane landed at Qingdao Airport, I felt that I was just one step away from the free world. Then the flight attendant’s voice suddenly sounded in the cabin.

“Passengers on 37J and 50C, please take your luggage and leave the plane first!”

37J—that was me.

I immediately understood why I had been checked in “automatically.” 50C was a Chinese student coming back from New Zealand. We together left the plane, under the watchful gazes of the other passengers, like two suspiciously poisonous creatures.

Free quarantine in Qingdao

 Similar to the Shanghai Pudong Airport, which regrouped the arrivals by their destination provinces, the Qingdao airport classified the “international” passengers by their residential districts. Each district had a staff there at the airport, handling the transportation of their responsible passengers to the quarantine hotel of their district. The staff who received me said he had been working at the airport since March. Once, because one of the passengers he received was diagnosed, he himself had had to be quarantined for 14 days as a “close contact.”

Epidemic control was at this point the government’s top priority. Officials at different levels were all held accountable. To avoid possible misdiagnosis, it was common practice for local health administrations to impose extra tests and quarantine time. On the day I arrived at the quarantine hotel in Qingdao, I had another round of tests, including a serological test. Twenty-four hours later, another two tests were conducted, this time no serological test. Different from the quarantine in Shanghai, the accommodation and tests in Qingdao were free of charge.

On the last day, at 8pm, after “14+1” days of quarantine and five rounds of tests, I was sent home by a van. The medical staff all dressed up in protective clothes handed me over to the security guard of my parents’ residential compound, who had been notified in advance to wait at the front gate to receive me. The security guard signed several papers and I was finally delivered home, like a parcel.

By the time I wrote the notes, Qingdao, a city with population of 9.5 million, hasn’t had any new local Covid-19 cases for more than four consecutive months.”