Samuel Porteous is the artist-in-residence at Shanghai’s Tan Yuan Gardens, and for the last ten years he has headed up Drowsy Emperor, a Shanghai-based studio focused on the interaction of Chinese and Western culture. His writing has previously appeared in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic rages, so too does a major debate, particularly in the Western countries that were affected by COVID-19 after watching it ravage China: How rigorous should screening and quarantine policy be?
Leaders and their populations have been grappling with that question through health, moral, rights, travel and economic lenses, but mistrust continues to pervade that conversation and prevent it from being as useful as it could be.
In China, cases appear to have plateaued, but critics have decried many of the government’s tactics as draconian and dismissed Chinese health authorities’ reports as propaganda with a vehemence that has had an unfortunate chilling effect on much-needed discussions of just what the Chinese are doing. But my experience as a Canadian expatriate currently in quarantine in Shanghai has given me a first-hand, unvarnished look at how the Chinese are now dealing with contagion risk from abroad.
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My wife and I began our return to our home in Shanghai and entry into the current Chinese quarantine system with a packed 2 a.m. flight out of Vancouver, just over a week ago. Twenty-two hours of travel later, including a seven-hour layover in Hong Kong, my wife and I landed in Shanghai at approximately 6:30 p.m. local time.
After some initial confusion, the flight crew announced deplaning was under the control of the Shanghai authorities. Over the next three hours, passengers were called to disembark by periodic announcements calling out groups of seat numbers. Distinctions of first-, business- and economy-class meant nothing.
An aging grandmother sitting in 87E was called to deplane at the same time as a young man in first class. Passengers were grouped according to risk factors including recent travel history. Three relatively calm hours later – the airplane had wisely kept the entertainment system functioning – my wife and I were among the last of the more than 200 passengers to leave the plane.
What followed was a journey through an elaborate sorting system involving standard customs procedures, sit-down interviews with health officials in full protective attire, multiple temperature checks and reviews of contact and travel history as stated on health questionnaires filled out on the plane. The end result was an allocation of large adhesive red, yellow or green dots on passports and health questionnaires according to assessed risk level.
Red dots were for those exhibiting symptoms requiring further medical examination at the airport. Yellow dots were allocated to those requiring a mandatory two-week quarantine and test. Green dots were for low-risk passengers who could continue their travels unrestrained. As arrivals from Canada, we were given yellow dots and told to download a smartphone app that would assist with tracking during our mandatory quarantine.
We were then escorted to one of the special buses designated to take yellow-dot passengers for testing. I was one of two non-Chinese citizens on the bus. We arrived at one of Shanghai’s newly erected testing centres around 3 a.m. One by one, we were called off the bus for testing. In a room featuring a poster of the bifurcated skull of a man getting a deep nasal swab, samples were taken. We were told it would be up to 12 hours before a result was available, so we were taken to a hotel to await results. There was no charge for any of this.
The next day, at about 9 p.m., our results came back negative. The head of the neighbourhood committee for our Shanghai suburb who had been in touch with us via text messaging through this whole process then arranged designated transportation to take us home. Our home had already been approved for self-quarantine as it is a standalone structure and we were the only two occupants. Quarantining at home was allowed to reduce demand for quarantine spaces in designated, specially prepped hotels and other spaces.
As we drove through Shanghai, we saw signs of a city coming back to life.
Upon arrival at our home, representatives of our residential area registered our entry into quarantine.
As we began to unpack, whirling red and blue lights filled our windows. Another set of medical technicians had arrived to check our temperatures and explain quarantine rules. We were not to leave our home, whose border included our fenced yard and backyard garden.
A sign was placed at our gate notifying others of our quarantine and the date of its expiration. We were provided yellow bags clearly labelled “contaminated medical waste” in English and Chinese for our garbage, which would be treated separately. We were also given a container of large white tablets to be used with the water in our bathroom to treat waste entering the sewage system and thermometers to provide temperature readings to be reported before 9 a.m. each morning.
Medical technicians would check on us twice a day. Food and grocery deliveries could be left at our gate.
As a final measure, a shared account on China’s ubiquitous social media giant WeChat was set up, creating a group chat consisting of the local neighbourhood-committee member, a local policeman, a doctor and a representative of our real estate development’s management office.
This group would co-ordinate management of our quarantine. Days later, we learned through this chat group that a student returning to Shanghai from Britain, who shared our flight, had tested positive. The risk was mitigated, however, as he was seated more than three seats from us.
We’re more than 10 days into our quarantine now, and we feel fortunate that we have experienced no symptoms to date. We are over the so-called five-day hump, and hope to return to a relatively normal life in a handful of days.
So, is the Chinese approach to containing imported coronavirus risk overly draconian?
I am not an epidemiologist. But what I do know is that, given the Chinese are about two months ahead of us on this disease cycle, Western countries need to objectively report on and analyze what they have done that works, recognize their failures, share strengths and work together to save lives and recapture the future.
Decisions on what is appropriate need to be made by experts and need to be based on science. This is exactly the wrong time to allow geopolitical rivalries and a specious belief the West is in an “existential systems competition” with China to colour our analysis of best practices for containing this crisis to the extent that simply recounting what the Chinese have done is labeled propaganda. We are better than that, and so is our system.
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