Quarantining in China: An interview with an Irish emigrant

This interview was carried out with someone who recently emigrated to the People’s Republic of China. The full interview can be found on our YouTube channel, Connolly Youth Media, here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWWx_xKhurI

 

T: Do you want to just start with everything that happened when you touched down and landed in China?

D: Of course. I’ll start with the testing process.

In your country of origin you have to get two tests: a PCR test, your standard nose swab test, and an antibody test. The antibody they test for is Immunoglobulin M (ImG). From my understanding, this shows when you’re still infectious, whether you’re symptomatic or not. So you could be over it but still able to spread it to someone. You get those two tests within 48 hours [of your flight], and if you’re flying direct to China, that’s grand, but unfortunately there’s no direct flights [from Ireland], so we had to fly to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam there was a place in the airport specifically for people travelling to China and we got the same tests again there. Every time the test is done you have to send an application through an app on WeChat [a Chinese social media platform] to the relevant embassy. So, in Ireland it would be the embassy in Dublin, in Amsterdam its an embassy somewhere in the Netherlands [The Hague], and they review it and send you a little green QR code for accepted, or a red QR code to say you’ve been denied, as well as the reason why. Being denied is quite common, I know for us they had an issue because we didn’t have a date of our test on the report, it could have been from whenever. So it’s really strict, but once you have everything its okay.

After that then, its the process of boarding. You go up to the gate, and there’s a pre-boarding process. Everyone queues up as normal, and then you show your green QR code on your phone to say “Look, I’m good to go”. Then your passport is checked, and obviously for us our visas were checked which is just in the passport. They then funnel you through a little channel to a table with a woman who checks and notes your temperature. And it’s not for show, because I was refused two weeks before. It’s fairly serious, if your temperature is too high you won’t get on the plane. It’s not like Ireland where you can talk your way on, you haven’t a hope here. Your temperature is checked once, and then they check your boarding pass like normal, you walk down the tunnel that connects to the plane, and before you get on the plane they check your temperature again. Then they spray sanitiser on your hands, and you walk straight down the plane to wherever your seat is, and find a bag of food. Usually it’s an apple, just little small sorts of things that you can munch on throughout the flight because there’s no open hot food allowed on flights to China anymore for obvious reasons. After that they give you documentation. One is for normal cross-border stuff, just to say where you’re going to stay. The other one is specifically about your health, so you have to know where your final destination is, for me its obviously S—-, where you’re quarantining, which is in S—–, the city I flew to, and you have to give an address of where you’ll be going to after you finish your quarantine.

The quarantine period is different from province to province, but everywhere is at least 14 days. I know in Beijing its 21 days. But normally what would happen is you would spend 14 days in a province, then you’re allowed to transfer to wherever you’re actually living, then another 7 days [quarantine] in wherever you’re living, whether that be in a hotel or in your home. So we filled out the forms and it just details who your contacts are in China, so obviously for us it was our employer. You fill out information about your health, have you had any symptoms, have you been in contact with anyone, etc.

The plane flies as normal, the staff have boiler suits [overalls] on. I don’t know how they did it but fair play to them. It’s just a normal flight, they made it as normal as they could make it, and this is not just the airline, its the policy. Any airline flying into China has to operate by standards such as they have to clean the toilet every time someone uses it, like literally every single time, which is mad but, that’s how they’re stopping spreads.

A typical flight to China under Covid regulations. Measures such as these are the best way to protect both crew and passengers

Once you land then, they play a video which explains what’s going to happen if you’re still a bit lost. We were probably waiting about 45 minutes on the runway. I think another plane had landed so they wanted to clear the passengers through the process before they made another group of people queue which was sensible. You get off the plane, you’re put on to a bus, and they bring you to the normal entrance into the terminal. Everyone’s in full hazmat gear, and they’re as friendly as they can be. It is a bit intimidating, but they’re really helpful. The way it works is, Chinese nationals have a different code to us, we have a specific foreigner code. You fill out a form on your phone, its done through English, but they don’t really make you do it alone because it’s complicated, so they just send you over to someone to help you straight away because they know you’re not going to know this, that, or the other. That person will help you fill it out. It’s similar to the paper form: where you’re going to live, who your contact is, have you  been in to contact with anyone, where are you from, where have you been in the last 21 days, where have you lived in the last six months, all stuff to just keep track. The biggest question was have you been to England or South Africa in the last 21 days, because I’m sure you’d be put in a room if you’d said yes [laughs]. At this point they try to help you as much as they can. Once you’ve done that you get a little barcode on your phone which is used for your testing, so you go through a little channel that live reads your temperature and you get waved on.

Then you come to a lady at a desk, and she scans your little barcode on your phone with her phone, or her little reader, and it prints off a little thing, which is the label for a vial. You take your little label and your vial, and you go into this room with these pods lined either side, they’re little isolation pods so people can be tested separately and they’re not all breathing the same air. There’s a system where, it’s in Chinese, but I mean red writing and green writing, you can tell which one you’re supposed to go into. So you go in, they do the swab test. They stick it up your nose for about 10 seconds and just leave it there, it’s quite different to the one’s I’ve had before, but it was grand. They just put the label that was just printed off on the vial, and you get waved on. After that then you go through customs as normal. You go through immigration, they just check your visa and you pick up your bags and put them through the scanner. After that then you go through another set of doors and you see a poster which you’re supposed to scan with your phone, and there’s an English one and a Chinese one. You scan it and you fill out information about where you’re going. It’s similar enough but its for this area so its for this city. So this code is to make sure that anyone who isn’t supposed to be walking the streets, it would be red because you just haven’t quarantined. And this is for after your 14 days, so when you go to a train station, or an airport again, you show this code and say “Look, I’ve done my 14 days”, this is just how you initiate that process.

At every step of the process, Chinese officials have been rigorous in the application of Covid regulations for international travellers, a policy which has paid dividends for the nation and its citizens since the initial outbreak, and which the Irish government, contrastingly, fail to do even now

They then put you on a bus, and there was only about 4 people on the bus because we were last off the plane. After that the bus drives for about 10 minutes, to I’d describe it as a processing centre. It’s like a big office but the bottom floor is rented out, I don’t think there’s anyone in the top. There are Communist Party flags everywhere. It’s cool because it is obviously run by the party, it was amazing to see. And I saw a big Xi Jinping going in. You’re directed off, they ask do you speak Chinese, unfortunately I had to say no, I wish I did. So we got assigned this woman, who was really helpful, walked us through everything. Again, everything is QR codes in China, you scan it and it takes you straight to another thing, where you take this QR code and you go to the front of the desk, and a woman compares that with the other one you filled out to make sure the information matches, to make sure you’re being assigned in the right place. Then they put you in an empty room with chairs just spaced out, labeled 1 through 9, and you go in there and they say “Just wait”. There’s free bottles of water in there, there’s little snacky things and stuff if you want, its all free. And then after about 5 minutes, someone came in to get us. They went to me and my partner first because we were obviously the only ones with foreign names, so it was easy to say “This is you” [laughs].

Then they brought us out of that room, we formed two lines and they put us on another bus, and that drove about 10 minutes, if even, maybe 5 minutes to the hotel where we’re staying. You don’t get to pick the hotel, it’s just assigned to you. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a grab for the cheapest room, so if you can fight your way to the front of the queue, you should, but its not too bad [laughs]. You get out of the bus and your temperature is checked. I should say as well your temperature is checked at the processing centre, so your temperature is checked every time you get off the bus. Before they let you in the hotel they check your temperature, they give you this little document which lists the house rules. It just says stuff like don’t go outside your room, don’t do this, don’t do that. And it tells you little essentials, so for example if you want to order something off the internet, snacky things or anything, it just gives you an address to put in, and tells you what you can’t order, you can’t order takeaway, or open food or anything like that for obvious reasons. And they also give you a little thing for filling out your order for food. So that’s how that procedure works, I’ll explain that after. You go to the front desk, you fill out the hotel’s own form, which gives them a  contact number and it links up to the previous test you did at the airport. So you have to do another test then which is a blood test, and it means that those results can be matched up and you can view them together and you can show them to other people. So we were checked in within about 5 minutes, chose the cheapest room available, I think the price was 45 euro a night. Now that’s subsidised off the normal hotel rate, its a nice hotel you wouldn’t get anywhere near it otherwise, and I wouldn’t be staying here [laughs]. I think that’s subsidised by the state to some degree and obviously we’re getting money back off the job for it so its not too bad. Myself and my partner had to quarantine separately, they’re fairly strict that you have to be married to quarantine together. But aside from that they’re really helpful, they gave us two rooms next to each other so we talk through the door [laughs].

Then you just get in to the hotel. You have a read through the document, there’s a menu at the back so I can talk about how the food works, most important thing. Every day before 4 o’clock, you fill out this little slip, based off a menu. Your breakfast is free, but otherwise the food is subsidised, everything is around 3 euro, for anything. Its a full meal as well, a proper sized meal, you don’t go hungry at all, it’s great. You pick your lunch and you pick your dinner and if you want to pay extra for Western food that’s an option, feel free, but that’s the one thing that’s very clearly not subsidised [laughs], and understandably so. You stick that down every day, just outside. The way it works is, the corridor is like a normal corridor but there’s plastic lining the floor, which is cleaned every single day, I think it’s twice a day they come along with a hoover and spray things. Every hotel room has a chair outside and this is where they place your meals, and this is where you place your rubbish. So obviously you bag up your rubbish and they take it away. Your temperature is checked twice a day by a nurse. She comes around at about 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock, and they just log that into the system. On the second day then you do a blood test, which isn’t too bad, they just take you outside and sit you in the chair and they’re done in about two minutes, very professional. That was the one thing as well that was completely different to Ireland. In Ireland, most of the tests I’ve done have been at least 24 hours for results. For the swab I did it was 6 hours, and for the bloods it was like 8 or something like that. So the turnaround is crazy, they’ve obviously been used to doing it.

A hotel employee cleans the hall outside quarantining travellers rooms. Basic measures such as this are carried out rigorously twice daily

T: There’s stories coming out now because Ireland has only just introduced the mandatory hotel quarantine, lots of people giving out about how that’s going. One of the big complaints is the hotel staff and airport staff not wearing full proper PPE. Are you much more confident about how that’s going in China, with the disposable paper suits, masks, and face shields and everything?

D: Anybody who’s in the chain, whether that be in the airport, the hotel, or the bus driver, is in full PPE. Even the bus has plastic shielding dividing the bus. Full mask, full suit, gloves that are changed, you can watch them change the gloves every single time they deal with someone new, full face shield. Its extremely well followed, whether its a societal thing or if its been going on for so long. I was just thinking earlier on, I was in Korea last year and I was just talking to my mother, and we had all face masks on by then. And she was saying “They’re saying you don’t need the face masks, they don’t do anything”, and yet they then tried to implement it a month later. And then public faith is a little bit shakier then, they’re like “Well why did they say no, and now they’re saying yes?”. But to answer your question, PPE is literally everywhere in this hotel, no one comes near you without it, you really do feel quite reassured.

 

T: Were you required to provide your own masks or were you given surgical masks as you went through the process?

D: We brought our own masks, everyone seems to have their own masks. But from what I’ve seen of the process, if you were to ring down and say “Look, I’m leaving tomorrow, I’ve no masks”, they will send you up masks. They’re everywhere, you see them in the airport, they have boxes of them there to give out if people need them. But I think at this stage its so common that people just have their own masks now at this stage.

 

T: One of the biggest criticisms in Ireland the whole time time has been the lack of clarity of information and things changing all the time. Have you noticed a change since you got to China? I know it might be difficult with the language barrier but do you feel like the information is clear and that you have a better understanding of what you’re supposed to do and not do?

D: That was one thing I definitely found was that, for someone who doesn’t speak Chinese, and can’t read Chinese, I’m amazed at how understandable everything is, it’s very clear, it’s always indicated in advance whether you need something, or what documents you need to have. It’s all very clearly laid out, a lot of times in English as well, whenever they can. There isn’t any confusion, you’re told outright you need this test done, you need this test done, and if there’s stages where for instance there’s a form you have to fill out and it’s in Chinese, I’ve never found people so helpful, they’re just happy to fill it out for you. You just tell them what it is and they’ll just type away. But there’s no confusion at all, people know exactly what they’re doing, and its clear that, having had this response for the last 18 months or so, it’s just part of life for them, it’s something very well organised.

 

T: Brilliant. And when you get to the end of your quarantine period, do you have an idea of what restrictions there are on the other side? 

D: Yeah, the thing is, the city we’re staying in, unless you live here you’re not allowed just roam around the streets. Because of where it is, its specifically a main quarantine city. So, 5 days before you’re due to leave, it’s all done by QR code again, you let the relevant people know where you’re going, how you plan on getting there, and they organise transport for you. It doesn’t cost anything for you, it’s just so you’re not getting on a public bus, or getting in a taxi driver’s car. Just to get you out of the city, they don’t want you here, which is fair enough [laughs]. It’s very clear in that regard, its very well laid out.

 

T: The big headlines over here over the past few days have been three people, it was found, just left the quarantine. Have you heard any stories of that happening in China, do you think it would be even possible?

D: I’d love to see someone try, I couldn’t see them getting past the elevator, nevermind disappearing into the night [laughs]. Yeah I heard that and I was honestly shocked because I’m immediately comparing it to the situation I’m in and I’m saying well, if I was to walk out the front door, I don’t even know how you would. I’d heard there was something like that to do with a smoke break, but I don’t know if you can request to take a smoke in China when you’re quarantining. But you wouldn’t have a chance to get anywhere, nevermind with your bags. The second you get on some sort of transport, you’d have to present your QR code which wouldn’t be green, so they’d be saying “Well, why are you out here?”. So I guess having an organised response makes sense to every facet of society.

An example of the QR system used to streamline the quarantining process

T: So to clarify you have to present your QR code to get on any public transport?

D: Yeah, I know in this city there’s a lot of people using it for quarantining before they travel to other parts of China, so you wouldn’t get on a bus without showing a green QR code

 

T: And how are you feeling about the response and the systems you’ve seen in place? Does it make you feel more confident about being in China and being safer, or is it going in the opposite direction into authoritarian surveillance state [laughs]?

D: [Laughs] It’s really reassuring, you can see why things are under control. And you can see why, like when I get back to the place I’m going, I’ll be able to walk into a boozer and have a drink, and have some sort of normality. Because there’s no thing of rolling lockdowns. That’s not to say if an outbreak in a city happened, that a localised lockdown wouldn’t take place, but that’d be over in 10 days, or a week or something, because nothing would move. If in the event of an actual outbreak there would be a localised response, so a localised lockdown, similar to what you would have seen in the early days of Wuhan, but the rest of the country would be relatively safe and continuing as normal. And its very clear to see this sort of full society wide coordinated response, it shows you that whatever your opinions about China, it shows you that when you put public interest at heart you really can do proper things. You’re not tied down to what IBEC want you to do or anyone else. And you can see that when you run a system with public interest at heart, and people’s health at heart, and even if you were an ultra-capitalist, it doesn’t take a genius to say that it makes more sense to do a single effective lockdown, than constantly trying to open and close society. I’ve complete confidence now having seen how the process works.

 

T:  Do you happen to know how many cases it would take for a lockdown? Would it be a single one in an area?

D: I’m not sure, but from what I’ve seen it’s fairly proactive. It wouldn’t be like Ireland where they’d be waiting for “Right there’s 400, that’s a bit much, let’s lockdown”. They seem to deal with things on the spot. There’s effective things in place for a track-and-trace system, similar to what we have, but definitely a lot more streamlined and integrated into your life. So I’m not sure of the exact figure but I’d be fairly confident it wouldn’t be high anyways.

 

T: With these localised lockdowns would you end up with an internal border, with similar checks as if people were coming in from a different countries, tests etc.?

D: Yeah, definitely. From what I’ve seen, it’s a case of if you can imagine a bubble put up around the city. Like, what needs to get in and out will get in and out, whether that be food or people doing essential work, you wouldn’t have to talk your way through a checkpoint or anything like that [laughs]. From what I’ve seen its a case of just everything shuts down, and I think its kind of accepted in society that, “Look we’ve lost a week but we’ll be back to normal in a week”, it’s a better way to be.

 

T: Do you have any final thoughts, anything that stands out as being handled better where you are? 

D: I guess to conclude, it’s given me a lot of hope for getting back to normal, but I think the most depressing thing is when you look at how simple it is. I understand that the way WeChat works is different to the way we would have in Ireland but there’s definitely a way where we can integrate these things into our phones, and just have a proper response. I just feel that everything that goes on back home is reactive rather than proactive, with constant appeasement of IBEC and business lobbyists, which doesn’t even come into play here. It’s dealt with in a different way, and people have their critiques of China and whatever but it always feels like business is subservient to the people and the party. If you look at statements from airlines, they’ll be praised by the party for good work done. It’s not a case of Michael O’Leary publicly going on national radio and saying we need to open up, and I think that’s the fundamental difference is the roles that they play in society. I just think, we’re 18 months too late in the way we’re coming to these things, and you can see even in the stuff with the quarantine back home, there’s always going to be teething problems. But we could have dealt with them 18 months ago instead of just bringing in this crap now. But hopefully you’ll get over it with a few more vaccines.

Something else that’s interesting actually is the vaccine is available to foreigners in Beijing now, but mass vaccination rollout hasn’t been a priority here. From what I understand, the priority of SinoVac is to export it as much as possible to Third World countries. I could be wrong, but from my understanding, China understands that in order for things to get back to normal, these countries need to get back to normal as well and they don’t have the liberty of having a government that puts public health first and can do these lockdowns. So they’ve said “Look, we understand that if there’s a spike, we can lockdown, so it’s better for us to export as much of this vaccine as possible to poorer countries”. And as you’ve seen with the refusal of the West to suspend intellectual property rights on vaccines, there’s a lot of countries that are completely reliant on China. And it’s terrific [that they have SinoVac], they’re some of the poorest countries in the world and they’ve just been through some of the harshest times in the world and they’re going to go through even harder ones from being exploited to get every last penny out of them.

“The people and the party go hand in hand, and people do see the benefit of doing these things and that’s why they’re happy to do it”

It is hard to watch things back home and see how they should be done, and how they could be done. Its not rocket science, I think there’s this idea, and it’s always anti-communist stuff, that China’s so bureaucratic that it can control every facet of people’s lives. The people and the party go hand in hand, and people do see the benefit of doing these things and that’s why they’re happy to do it, and that’s why we don’t get people moaning about wearing a mask and all this absolutely imported American “freedom” nonsense. You can see that people genuinely see the value in it, and people genuinely see that it’s better for society and we can live good lives and that we can be relatively back to normal in spite of what we’ve been through already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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