Travel amid Covid-19: As the doors close, one by one
China has enforced a strict system for controlling imported infections, and it's no picnic
Travel restrictions and border closures are spreading, like doors that are shutting down one after another across much of Southeast Asia, and beyond, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this Reporting Asean account, Sarah Li tells us what's like to pack up and leave amid uncertainty -- and describes China's strict system for controlling imported infections after the peak of its outbreak.
Should I stay, or go? Up until 16 March, when the Philippine government announced more sweeping measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, I was prepared to ride this storm out in self-isolation in my apartment.
But the 72-hour deadline for outbound international flights, even if it was lifted on March 18, filled me with dread. What if I ended up stranded in a foreign land? I scrambled to get the last ticket on the next available flight to Guangzhou, China -- and so began my "evacuation" from the Philippines.
March 19: Departing Manila -- What if?
There is no social distancing when you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with other passengers on a packed airplane. Many were clad in self-styled protective gear, ranging from double layers of surgical masks to luminous colored raincoats, goggles, latex gloves. Flight attendants marched up and down the aisle with two face masks each, and surgical gloves. A thick cloud of anxiety and fear hung in the air as our delayed flight took off in the early afternoon. The question on our minds: Is there someone with Covid-19 on this flight?
All aboard the Chinese system
During the two-hour flight, my temperature was taken through a "thermometer gun" four times -- once before boarding, again before taking off, and twice more while airborne.
On my third screening, the attendant recorded a "higher than normal temperature", which I credited to being seated by the window, with the sunlight streaming in. As she walked away, I felt a lump form in my throat as I sheepishly pulled down my window shade.
The attendant came back shortly to retake my temperature, and relief washed over me when the reading came out normal this time.
Meantime, cabin staff used a colour-coded system to classify passengers' passports by nationality, next destination, and further travel plans. Red, orange, yellow and green. As I planned to take the bus from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, another city in Guangdong province, I got a red sticker.
Arrival in Guangzhou: Monitoring and controls
After our plane touched down in Guangzhou airport, we were instructed to remain seated. After 30 minutes of waiting, a group of staff in white Personal Protective Equipment suits walked into the cabin, and asked all red-sticker passengers to disembark. I hugged my carry-on luggage tightly as I was escorted off the plane.
As a Chinese national, I am familiar with how disciplined and regimental the Chinese system can be in implementing policies. But there was more to come by way of strict, meticulous check-ups to control imported Covid-19 cases. At immigration, we went through the temperature-reading machines. At one point, a man in a PPE suit singled me out: "Your temperature is 37.2 degrees Celsius, please come with me."
My body felt numb, but I followed him to a room where a lady, also in PPE, asked me to sit down and hand over my passport, before rechecking my body temperature. She used a mercury thermometer, the most traditional but reliable of tools -- that now showed a 37.7 reading.
Those numbers unleashed a cascade of dark thoughts through me. Then, I heard the thermometer lady's kind voice suggesting that I take off my down jacket: "Don't be nervous. The more you worry, the higher your temperature. Just relax."
Closing my eyes, I tried to recall that meditation video clip on YouTube from years ago. Whatever it was, 15 minutes later, my body temperature came out normal and the lady said: "You are good to go to the next step, just show them this certificate on your way out." (Having a body temperature of 37.3 degrees and above would have meant being taken to hospital.)
From Guangzhou to Shenzhen: More registration, waiting
After clearing the temperature check at Guangzhou airport, I proceeded to make my "domestic transfer" to Shenzhen, the city that lies just across Hong Kong. No passenger can leave the airport with self-arranged transportation. Instead, the government sends you to the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming passengers, at home or a designated hotel.
At the arrival hall, I went through a second passenger-sorting routine. At the main reception desk lay an array of coloured labels with the names of each district in Guangzhou, as well as each city in Guangdong province, in Chinese and English. Passengers were given the sticker matching their destination, then referred to the right desk.
This led to a long wait. Exhausted, I had not eaten or drunk anything since leaving Manila that afternoon. But the fear of removing my face mask outweighed the need for food. Time slows down when one faces an unknown number of unknown variables. Eventually, I found a secluded corner, took off my mask, and munched on a cracker with some coconut water.
Three hours later, I was among 40 other lucky passengers who boarded a bus to Shenzhen.
March 20: Arrival in Shenzhen -- 'Hotel Quarantine'
Eerie silence marked the two-hour bus ride to Shenzhen. At the Shenzhen Bay Border Control, we went through a sorting system similar to the one at Guangzhou airport, this time aided by digital technology. I registered at the desk of the district I was heading to, by scanning a QR code with my phone. An hour later, my bus arrived.
Once in Shenzhen, I was directed to the sorting area to register again, this time with my neighbourhood administration. Then, I was taken by a government-assigned car to my quarantine hotel.
At the hotel, staff disinfected my luggage and instructed me to disinfect my hands, put on latex gloves, and choose a room key. I was asked to scan three QR codes to complete registration with my neighborhood administration, and join a WeChat group for all quarantined passengers, hotel staff, government staff, police, and doctors. Finally, I was sent to my room.
By this time, it was 3am of the next day, March 20. A trip that usually takes six hours, from Manila to Shenzhen, had taken me 19 hours. I had lost track of how many times I had my temperature taken, how many forms I had filled out. I had my mandatory throat-swab test for Covid-19 and was now at the quarantine hotel, but these did little to ease my uncertainty. I later came to know that a passenger sitting two rows in front of me on the plane had been diagnosed Covid-19 positive.
Along this journey, I had run into a few complaining passengers, but many more quietly followed instructions. Mostly I saw people looking down at their phones, but I also witnessed people helping each other. The frontline staff were kind, even if they could not answer all questions.
After getting some rest, I resumed remote work. Meals are brought to my door three times a day, at 8am, noon and 6pm, by PPE-clad hotel staff. They check my temperature twice a day, and disinfect my room daily. My social life? FaceTime calls and watching zombie movies on Netflix with family and friends.
At 10pm of March 20, I got a call from the hotel -- my test had come in negative. This eased my mind somewhat, because "negative" these days is positive news.
Sarah Li, a Chinese national based in Manila, works for an international organisation. Previously, she was an investigative journalist covering China and Asia for a US newspaper.