Thursday, 19 March 2020

My night from hell in a Chinese quarantine testing centre

Michael Smith
Michael SmithChina Correspondent 
Shanghai | It is after 3am when medical staff in full hazmat gear usher us through the imposing gates of a coronavirus testing centre that will be our home for the next 16 hours.
I am with a group of 20 tired and hungry airline passengers who flew into Shanghai 12 hours earlier, many of them Chinese students fleeing the coronavirus outbreak in Europe.
Passengers being questioned as they arrive at the coronavirus testing centre in Shanghai.  Michael Smith
Since landing, my existence has been an Orwellian blur of chaotic airport queues, temperature checks, form filling, and a mystery night-time bus ride around Shanghai.
But things are about to get worse.
China, like almost every country in the world, is tightening its borders against an influx of coronavirus cases being brought back from hot spots such as Europe, Japan and South Korea. The difference is China, where the outbreak started, has been through this before, and the country's Communist leaders are not taking any chances.
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Like many, I was caught out by a sudden change in the rules that took place while I was travelling and only became public the day after I arrived. I was travelling from Malaysia which, when I took off, was not on the Shanghai government's list of high-risk countries. Australia was added to that list on Thursday. That meant I should have been given a "green" rating, allowing me to sail through customs and catch a taxi home.
My heart sank when the customs official clad in white plastic and goggles slapped a "yellow" sticker on my passport after checking an app on my phone which had tracked my movements for the previous 14 days.
A "yellow" or "red" sticker means you have to undergo 14 days' quarantine on arrival, either at home or a government hotel.
The room where Michael Smith and two other arriving passengers spent the night, sleeping in chairs. Michael Smith
The next two hours was a blur of slow-moving queues, more temperature checks and two sit-down interviews with customs officials. I became increasingly disturbed at the tightly packed crowds at the airport as we were "processed". Why weren't the authorities spacing us out?
After clearing customs, I was taken to a bus with 20 others, including locals, expatriates and one family with a young boy. We were being taken to a coronavirus testing centre.
When we arrived at the stark community medical centre with imposing security gates two hours later, we waited another 90 minutes on the side of the road. No-one had eaten since lunchtime but we were allowed to order burgers and bottles of water delivered by motorcycle courier. At 3am, we were ushered inside.
The coronavirus test itself was painless, a swab in the mouth. A nurse then took me upstairs to a stark room with lino floors, plastic curtains, a sink and three chairs. The test results would take at least eight hours and we had to stay here until then.
There were no beds and no heating. Water and crackers were provided. Everyone in the building shared basic but clean squat toilets located outside.
After a sleepless night in the room I shared with two others, we sat around like zombies waiting for midday when our test results were due in.
At 3pm, we were told our results were negative and most of the others in our group left to go home. Not me.
The nurse in charge said I had to go to a government-run quarantine hotel which I would pay for because I did not have the necessary permission from my local "community officer" to do this at home.
This was incorrect, as all the approvals had been arranged. I gave her the number of the person in charge to call but she never followed this up. Four others in my group were in the same situation. A fifth was not given any information at all about where he could go.
As the incompetency of the staff running the facility, which had no obvious senior supervisor, dawned on us, panic set in. There had already been one confirmed case in the facility the day before and a new batch of passengers had arrived, increasing our chance of infection. No one could tell us when we could leave or why we were being held for so long in this dangerous place.
A flurry of phone calls, including some badly needed help from the Australian Consulate in Shanghai and a bright Chinese student in our group who knew who to call got things moving. At 730pm, the wrought iron gates opened and we headed to a bus that had arrived to take us home.
Even then, the head nurse called the police because she thought we were escaping. After one of the students cleared up the situation, we finally boarded the bus.

Heavy handed

I am now in home quarantine for 14 days, my second time since the epidemic hit China in late January.
While most agree China's heavy-handed approach to contain the pandemic is necessary, it was the Chinese citizens rather than the expatriates in our group who were most disturbed by their treatment. They also questioned why officials were trying to force so many of us into a paid quarantine hotel when we had the approvals to stay at home.
For now at least, coronavirus has killed my travel bug.

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