As Bengaluru shuts down malls, schools and cinemas, here is an account of Madan* who travelled to Beijing a couple of days ago. Madan had been in Beijing for over six months when he left to meet his family in Bengaluru just before the Chinese New Year vacations on January 16. This was before China began shutting down its cities over the COVID-19 epidemic. He cancelled his return on January 30, and stayed in India for almost two months. While he worked from home in Bengaluru all the while, he headed back to work in Beijing a couple of days ago. This is his account as told to Shilpashree Jagannathan.
Returning to Beijing after two months since I left the city for the Chinese New Year Vacation is an experience in itself. China seems to have contained the Wuhan Virus, now known as COVID - 19, which has been declared as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation. The only COVID-19 positives in larger Chinese cities like Beijing are people returning from other countries. Hubei province, the place where it all began, has gone down to single digits. How did they do it?
Some say it is because they are not a democracy and hence it is easy to do it. It is not true. In a situation when you are staring at a serious illness or death, it's the fear of falling ill that makes people toe the line and be careful. It is not just the government. The government has laid out rules to people and it is a chain of command followed by every person in the society. People here now know it's not “just a flu”. They have been indoors for weeks at a stretch during the peak, as they self-quarantined. I have used this word so many times in the past few weeks that my phone predicts that I would type only “quarantine” after “self” and nothing else.
Since the new cases have come down, my office wanted me to head back as they felt it is safe to return. With a lot of apprehensions and mind battles, I decided to come back. The anticipation of the journey and reading obsessively about how to try and stay safe during it helped in preparing myself well. I carried and wore my mask for almost 12 hours of the journey, kept sanitising my hands every time I wanted to eat or touch my face, or even my water bottle.
Bengaluru to Beijing:
The immigration at Bengaluru airport was an interesting experience. Compared to all my previous international flights, where I was usually met by slow-moving, disinterested officers who threw tricky questions like is Venice the capital of Austria, the immigration officer, who attended to me was chatty.
We discussed COVID-19, and he went on for about 10 minutes about how governments are taking steps. He tried to discourage me from going. I suddenly felt a sense of camaraderie from an immigration officer, the last person I would expect it from. I had to explain that it was a majboori (Hindi word for compulsion) and added the usual saying, “Paapi pet ka sawaal hai,” (It is the question of my livelihood). He also said that this could be a one way ticket, since coming back from China isn't going to be easy anytime soon. But I was not planning to come back anytime soon, so I said thanks and moved on. However, this sent me on a trip of hopelessness, as my family is back home in Bengaluru.
The airports and the flights were so empty that I felt happy with this situation. Every passenger had a whole row to themselves unless they were traveling with someone. I could get any seat I wanted, I even had the luxury of requesting the executive at the counter to keep the seats beside me empty. All these demands were honoured without a second thought. The journey was comfortable physically but mentally I was uneasy.
I kept reminding myself to stay safe. Sneezing a bit too much or coughing drew dirty stares, even I did it to an old couple and got away from them. Like a popular meme says, earlier I used to sneeze to cover my fart, now I fart to cover the sound of the sneeze. I emptied half a bottle of one of the most sought after commodities: sanitiser.
Upon arrival in Beijing, everything was planned well. The high risk countries were sent to a separate set of gates and they had heavy screening, and people from other countries including India were in a different part of the terminal.
I traveled to Beijing on multiple occasions in the last four years and have never seen the airport so empty. It used to be one of those airports I dreaded going to because of the crowd. This time it was barely 30% of what I had seen earlier. Everyone wore masks, people in white fully covered suits / hazmat suits were walking around. They had heat sensing cameras at three checkpoints from the time we disembarked the plane to the exit. I had to fill out forms declaring my well-being as well as the countries I'd visited. This had to be filled and submitted to a person at the airport. Everything at the airport was digital. It was stressful for me to use the fingerprint scanner as many people would have used it. As soon as my immigration was done, I sanitised my hands, passport and my bag.
I got into a Didi (app based taxi service in China), the car was sealed with a plastic sheet so that the driver or passenger don't infect each other. The sheet was velcroed to the beams of the car so there was no way anything could pass. I reached my building sooner than usual since the traffic was 50% of the normal levels.
Entering the fortified apartment
The reality hit me harder when I got off the cab. My building has three gates to enter, and I usually take the east gate as it is closest to my apartment. The gate was locked and had a barbed wire on it. A few meters between the gate and the road was an aluminum barricade with a room on one side. Basically it meant I could not enter the building from there and there was only one gate to get in. There was a huge shelf outside the gate, where food parcels and packages from purchases were to be kept. Unlike the delivery guy giving it to your door during normal times, people who had cleared the “14 day self-quarantine” had to go down show their clearance pass and then take the package themselves. Since I had two large suitcases to lug around for 500 metres from the gate to my apartment, I had to ask my Chinese colleague on call to help me with the situation, as my Mandarin is very functional.
After a lot of discussions, she convinced one of the society management people to help me with the luggage. As we went to the next gate, I realised how serious the Chinese were in containing this spread. This gate also had a person in a white suit, who was pretty unhappy about a foreigner coming in with baggage. He kept showing his displeasure to the society person as he helped me in. As I walked to my apartment, I could see people pausing and giving way to a foreigner.
I spent almost 45 minutes filling out forms which were translated by my colleague on the phone, and declaring that I am not from a “blacklisted country” and that I would serve the 14-day self-quarantine. I had to sign many papers and it was tedious.
Before I got into the lift, there were many more papers with instructions, written in Mandarin. There was a cup full of toothpicks besides the buttons in the elevator. There was also a sponge stuck to the elevator wall where people could stick used toothpicks after they pressed the button.
Home at last
Getting into my apartment was a relief. I sat down, took a deep breath and sanitised my phones, passport and suitcase handles. I have to now stay in this apartment for 14 days, 24/7. The only way I can order food or groceries during the quarantine phase is by letting my colleague know. She asks the society management to deliver it to my door. When the delivery arrives, there is a knock on the door and the delivery person stays three feet away, and shows me the QR code to make the payment.
There is a notice put up on my door in Mandarin, indicating that an outsider has self-quarantined here. So, there is a lady who sprays disinfectant thrice a day at the common area. I am not allowed to step out of my apartment. I am supposed to record my temperature every day on an app that is developed by the Chinese government to monitor people under self-quarantine. I check my temperature three times a day and write it down in a chart every day. This chart is for the society. Besides me checking my temperature, the society management sends their representative to check my temperature every day at noon. This treatment is not because I'm a foreigner, it is a blanket rule for anyone coming into Beijing, including locals who went out of the state or country.
I have no idea how I will be spending 14 days alone in a room. But, I work from remote, I have friends and families to talk to via chat. Above all, I'm not alone in doing this. At this point, there are around 80,0000 returnees in Beijing who are doing the same thing. Hopefully, in the coming days, it will get better and I hope this virus will go away soon. For a change, I’m looking forward to seeing jam-packed roads and malls, as an indication that all is fine.
*Name changed to protect privacy