I’ve just returned to Beijing, having spent almost two months living as a coronavirus refugee abroad. By the end of January, the number of those infected and killed by COVID-19 in China was growing at an alarming speed. In Wuhan alone, the daily infection cases went over hundreds. After two of my return flights home were canceled, I decided to extend my stay in Europe and Southeast Asia. I laid low until China started to bring the spread of the virus under control. Today, infections in the entire country are down to dozens a day, most of which are imported cases.
How did China contain the situation? Quarantine is the key. I have been witness to how strict quarantine is implemented while locked up in my house. I can tell you all the details.
I landed in Terminal 2, Beijing Capital International Airport at 2am on March 13. Before we got off the plane, everyone was asked to fill in a form detailing our departure location, travel history over the past 14 days, and whether we showed any symptoms of COVID-19. We were asked to line up to hand in the completed form for a manual check, right before going through the infrared thermometer.
This is the part that started to feel like living in a movie. All of the staff who checked us were wearing professional COVID-19 prevention suits. The suits covered their entire body from head to toe, with their faces covered by N95 masks and protective goggles, and their shoes wrapped in plastic. It gave a sense of how serious they were taking their duties. This was just the beginning of it.
The passage through Chinese customs was quite smooth. Anyone who didn’t return from the countries with large outbreaks, particularly Italy, Korea and Iran, could use the automated door to scan their passports. But the door relied on a facial recognition system that could not identify people wearing masks, leading to a temporary jam. You could hear the staff yelling, “your masks. Masks off!”
My journey in quarantine started when I tried entering my residential compound around 3:30am in eastern Beijing. The main entrance was blocked. You could no longer tap your key card to enter. A guard was waiting for me after seeing me exit the taxi. He took my temperature using a handheld infrared thermometer. After seeing that it was normal, he led me into the security office to write down my ID, mobile and household numbers on a registration form, which had already been marked by others who had returned. Then he told me that I had to report myself to the community center in the same morning.
I went to bed before 5am, after unpacking and cleaning up. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve read intensively online, exchanging tips with families who work in Chinese hospitals. I’ve made a habit of sanitizing personal items such as my mobile phone, glasses, and makeup case after washing my hands according to surgical-level standards. As with morning meditation, after doing the whole sanitizing process I feel calm and safe.
Hours later, I was awoken to the ring of my doorbell. Although I was still in a drowsy, sleepy mood and tried to ignore it, it wouldn’t stop. I saw the time on my phone showed it was just past 10am. I wrapped myself in a robe, and through the peephole in my front door saw a middle-aged man outside with a mask on.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Why didn’t you report to the community center?” he responded. “I’m sorry I’ve only arrived home by 3am and went to bed by 5am after unpacking, I’ll go report after I get enough rest,” I said. “But when?” he asked. “Maybe noon…” I responded while yawning.
He left. I went to bed. I managed to sleep for another hour before deciding to feed myself. I heated up some frozen steamed buns and made myself a cup of coffee. I needed to wake up.
Honestly, after being rushed by them this time, I realized I should not delay the report anymore. I finished as soon as I could, put on a mask and went downstairs. The older man was standing at the main entrance, where he led me to the community office. We chatted briefly. He was relieved hearing that I just returned from Southeast Asia rather than Italy, Korea or Iran. Then we talked about how there seemed to be less infection cases in tropical areas, possibly due to the hot weather. I asked him if there were any infection cases in our compound. He said no, which was relieving to hear. But later I still used my Wechat location-based app to double-check whether it was true. It appeared the nearest infection case was seven kilometers away. I was happy finding it out.
At the community center, a female staff with a mask gave me three pages to fill in for the registration. It’s similar to the report I did at Chinese customs, with more details on my current living and work situation, and a list of questions on my health status. It took me 10 minutes to finish the registration. They asked me for my ID so they could copy it. She told me I’m supposed to self-check my body temperature twice a day and report it on an online system. If I’m healthy and fulfill all the temperature reports after 14 days staying at home, I can get a pass to go out and return to my normal life routine. She also said if I feel sick I can contact them and they’ll send me to a hospital. She said I can get parcels and fresh food deliveries dropped off at my door per request, with no limitation on how much or how often I can order daily. It all sounded reasonable.
Then she said, “we are going to install a camera in your house to observe you.” My relief quickly gave way to shock, prompting me to respond, “I’m sorry but in any public information I’ve never heard or read that a camera is required for home quarantine. I think it will cause great inconvenience. I don’t want anyone to videotape when I walk around in my PJs at home.” She said, “we’ll install it in your living room.”
“Will you take it down after the quarantine is over?” I asked. “Of course,” she responded. I said, “I’m sorry. But anyone who wants to install a camera in my home, I’ll need to see the legal documents to check the legitimacy.” Seeing my persistence, she phoned someone. After finishing the quick phone call, she told me that they would install the camera in the hallway.
There was no further space for bargaining. So I returned home around 1pm. Half an hour later, a staff member came and sealed my front door with a paper seal. An hour later, two men installed a video camera in my hallway. They finished the job quietly in half an hour and left.
There, my quarantine started.