My trip through China’s extreme Covid-19 quarantine measures from ‘contaminated’ Europe: hazmat suits, diapers, surveillance – and no alcohol


It’s November 2020 and my phone rings in Brussels. It’s my brother in Shanghai. He’s calling to tell me our father has cancer and I need to get there quickly to help make medical decisions. But the world is engulfed by a pandemic, and I’m sitting in a contaminated continent that tops China’s unwanted list.
To get on one of the few exorbitantly priced flights, I have to pass two Covid-19 tests. One will draw a sample from my nose and the other from my blood, with both needed to be taken within 48 hours before departure at a lab approved by the local Chinese consulate. When I get my results, I have to upload them together with a long list of personal data via a phone app to the consulate, which then activates a QR “health” code on my phone required for boarding my plane in Amsterdam.
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The country that faltered after the coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan has now successfully tamped down the virus and they don’t want to let it spread again. China mandates all incoming travellers go into a strict two-week quarantine. Those arriving from European countries, which many in China perceive as unwilling or unable to control the outbreak, are particularly suspect.
In Sweden, where I spent the summer months, only the neurotic seemed to worry about Covid-19. Only once did I see a group of medical workers screening people at a shopping centre. It was for head lice.
After taking two weeks to get everything needed for my flight on a Chinese airline, I jolt as I board my plane in Amsterdam. Expecting smiling air stewards and hostesses, I see a phalanx of operators covered from head to toe in hazmat suits. Their extreme caution makes me feel like a suspicious specimen abducted onto an UFO.
Many of the mostly Chinese passengers come fully protected, too. Since each of us carries double-negative results to get on the flight, this cabin must be one of the safest places in Europe. The Chinese passengers also follow instructions to stay in their seats as much as possible, even avoiding the toilet during the 12-hour flight. I also avoid the bathroom, my confidence shaken by the behaviour of those around me.
I chat with one of the air hostesses. Her transcontinental work, challenging enough on normal days, has become downright brutal during the pandemic. The crew are not allowed to take off their PPE (personal protective equipment) during the flight and are advised to wear diapers. Their task is to protect China, which is now largely Covid-19-free, from the infected rest of the world.
“The suit allows us to fly back and forth without going through a 14-day quarantine each time,” she says. “But it is horrible to work in.”
Upon landing, customs officers comb through the plane to see if anyone has fallen ill. Our flight gets the all-clear to disembark, and we file into a Covid-19 testing station, getting another QR code and passport check along the way. Almost everything is shielded and contactless, a precise choreography of anticipated human movement.
Even though I have by now three certified negative test results, I am still a suspect in China’s eyes. There’s always a chance of catching something on the way. And since the tests I have had are not perfect, I shall endure a 14-day strict quarantine at my own cost.
A minder ushers us to a designated bus that whisks us to our quarantine hotel. Upon arrival, a medical worker dressed in PPE greets us. She has probably not been involved with the hospitality industry long. “Leave your bags here! Queue over there! Keep distance!” she commands through her N95 mask.
Another medical worker measures our temperature and gives each of us a green bucket containing disinfectants: hospital-grade chlorine tablets, antimicrobial handwash and alcohol swabs.
“Whenever you poo or pee, sterilise it for half an hour before flushing,” she says. “This is to protect our city’s sewage.”
While I am almost sure I don’t have the virus, the staff take no chances. As I walk into my hotel room, a person in PPE fumigates the corridor I just passed. I step out to ask if she’s really doing this because of me. “Yes,” she says. “We have to disinfect the corridor after each new arrival.”
The novelty of having someone cleaning after me quickly wears off. Throughout my stay, exterminators fumigate the corridor about six times a day; their disinfectants stain and bleach the wooden panels and carpets, and their machines whirr and beep, making me feel like I’m in an intensive care unit. They spray my room every day, too, since I might infect the rubbish I throw out.
My family worries about the food. I tell them it’s a bit greasy and I have to pay for it, but it’s fine. The hotel delivers it to my door, so I can stay confined to my room. With the frequent fumigation, I imagine blankets of airborne disinfectants land on my meal. But my bigger problem is the lack of something nice to wash it down with. While we are allowed to order extra provisions from supermarkets, alcohol is banned. I guess they don’t want me to get drunk and do something stupid, like escape.
Not that I can. While my door is unlocked, there’s a surveillance camera pointing at it. I take three steps beyond my door to snap a few quick pictures with my phone, and my room phone rings. It’s security.
“What are you doing in the corridor?” asks the person on the line. I tell him I was taking a breath of fresh air. “Why are you taking pictures?” the interrogator continues. I say it was for a souvenir. “There is nothing to photograph. The corridor will always look the same. Please go back to your room and do not come out,” he says as he ends the call.
Every day a doctor visits me twice to record my temperature, the reading of which I yell through the closed door. Just once, she demands to do a spot check to see if I am telling the truth.
I don’t have Covid-19, but after a few days my bronchi feel tender from the sprays. I dare not tell that to the doctor in case she sends me to a hospital strapped to a stretcher. Reassuringly, though, two mosquitoes fly around my room. Since they haven’t died from the chemicals, I assume I’m OK.
At the beginning of my stay the officers ask if I want an early transfer to my father’s home to serve out the rest of my quarantine in a scheme called “7+7”, where travellers with a local address can do the second week at home. I say yes, of course.
Before I can leave, the same person calls to let me know my application has been rejected because our neighbours refused to have me near. But the officer explains they might be fearful of medical workers coming to our building to measure my temperature, the potentially infected trash I put in the corridor, and an emergency situation, such as a fire, when I have to flee my apartment with the rest of them. The professionals throughout the quarantine are strict but nice; although this doesn’t change my situation, it helps alleviate the feeling of being imprisoned.
I flew 10,000km (6,200 miles) to see my ill father only to be isolated inside a room a few hundred metres away from the hospital in which he is staying. On the day of my arrival in China, my father and my brother stood outside my hotel and waved at me from the street before heading to the hospital in preparation for the life-saving operation. That was the last time I saw them during my two-week confinement.
I had wanted to be at my father’s side during these angst-filled hours and days. Instead, all I could do was wish him well by video call from my hotel nearby.
The isolation room echoes my pain; the frequent medical checks and sounds of the fumigation add to the hazy confusion of who is sick and who is not, what is imagined and what is real.
On my last day, the hotel asks me to pay 7,000 yuan (US$1,080) for my stay, inclusive of food. It’s not a small sum for a quarantine I never asked to enter. But then, 500 yuan per day does not seem to cover the gargantuan work of disinfection and logistics on top of running a four-star hotel.
Before my last day, an operator had called asking me to vacate my room by 6am so cleaners can fumigate it. “What if I oversleep?” I tease. She replies that they could lock me up for another 14 days if I run into potentially contagious new arrivals. I leave on time.
I am given a 30-minute window to follow a one-way departure route: drop off the key card, follow a marked path without touching anything, and leave from the main door as quickly as possible. Unconfined, I find myself in the middle of Shanghai.
From the street, I take in the enormousness of the building. I did not get a chance to see it on arrival because I was ushered from the quarantine bus parked in a roofed area and straight into the hotel.
People are rushing to work on a bright new morning. They pack the metro, crowd the shops, and fill the office lifts. Dazed, I walk through a gleaming Covid-19-free megapolis, where people are interacting in dreamlike familiarity.
I meet my brother and go straight to our father. He is one week into recovery from a successful operation.
In free and democratic Europe, people live under the repressive shadow of Covid-19 . In China, the system is restrictive, but people are almost completely safe from the virus imprisoning much of the world. They are free to hug, to party and to prosper.
The same night my brother takes me to a crowded wine bar in Shanghai with friends. There are no masks, no talk of vaccines and, for a moment, no worries. It feels so 2023.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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