© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Health Checks Await Travelers Entering China, As It Tries To Block COVID-19 Rebound

Airport security staff wearing protective gear check passengers arriving at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on March 19, the day China reported no new domestic cases of the coronavirus for the first time since it started recording them in January.
Hector Retamal
AFP via Getty Images
Airport security staff wearing protective gear check passengers arriving at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on March 19, the day China reported no new domestic cases of the coronavirus for the first time since it started recording them in January.

Now that China appears to have snuffed out local transmission of the coronavirus, it is trying hard to keep the disease from rebounding back in from abroad. China has reported just a handful of new domestic COVID-19 cases in recent days, but has seen a spike in cases coming in from elsewhere.

As thousands of travelers have begun entering China in anticipation of the eventual return to normalcy, the government has put in place a strict regime of health checks, monitoring and quarantine in the hope that it can catch any new inbound cases before infections can spread.

For travelers like Annie Wright, who returned to Shanghai from the English town of Derby last week, the journey was a "once-in-a-century experience."

Wright, a British national who teaches at an international school in Shanghai, began the trip with her husband and three young sons last week with a pre-dawn drive to London's Heathrow Airport and ended almost 48 hours later at their apartment door in Shanghai.

The long-haul leg — about 17 hours of flying from London to Shanghai with a stopover in Moscow — turned out to be the short part.

"We landed at 9:30 Shanghai time Thursday morning, and we got home about 10:30 Friday morning," she said by phone from her apartment in Shanghai.

In between was a gauntlet of temperature checks, queues, throat swabs, nose swabs — all administered by police, volunteers and medical workers in hazmat suits. And then came hours of waiting.

Upon arrival in Shanghai, all passengers have their temperature checked and travel history vetted. For Wright and her family, it took an hour and a half to deplane as health workers called passengers off in small groups. Their wait turned out to be relatively short; others have reported being stuck on planes for six hours or more.

Travelers are then split into three groups and given color-coded stickers to put on their passports — red for those with symptoms of COVID-19 or traveling from the hardest hit areas; yellow for passengers from other affected areas (including the United States); and green for the rest.

The local government of the district where Shanghai's Pudong International Airport is located said that from March 3-22, around 8,100 people entering the country from abroad were sent to centralized isolation and observation centers from the airport. This included 934 foreigners, according to The Paper, a Shanghai-based news outlet. Of the total, 815 were from a growing list of countries of concern, including the U.K., United States, South Korea and Iran.

Wright and her family handed over their health declaration forms and got yellow stickers. "At that point, we knew we were weren't going home straight away," she said.

They were allowed to proceed through immigration and collect their bags. Then, airport staff in white hazmat suits guided them to a hall where they registered with representatives of their local district, one of 16 in Shanghai. Then they waited.

Eventually, Wright and her family boarded a bus and, with windows open and a police escort, were driven to a district coronavirus testing center at a hotel a couple of hours away. In a tent, medical workers swabbed them (top of the mouth and deep inside both nostrils). They were given two rooms and told to wait for the results.

"We were lucky that testing center had hotel rooms," she said. Travelers swapping details and tips on the Chinese social messaging app WeChat have reported waiting for hours in gyms, equipped with lounge chairs and blankets spaced apart.

Facing the threat of more cases entering China from abroad, the city of Beijing is intensifying its checks. The capital will subject all people entering from overseas to centralized quarantine and testing for the coronavirus, the Beijing Daily reported on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

Wright and her kids were deep asleep with jet lag the next day when there was a knock on the hotel room door. They had tested negative.

"We must have seen 300 people in haz-suits the whole day and every single one of them was calm, patient, not flustered," she said.

The family boarded a minibus for the final leg of their trip home.

Now they are settling in to a mandatory 14-day quarantine period, monitored by local authorities. There's a strip of paper affixed across their front door that will break if it is opened.

The government is taking the measures seriously. China ordered the expulsion of an Australian woman who violated her quarantine in Beijing to go for a run, state media reported. And the Shanghai Sharks pro basketball team cut business ties with a presenter from Britain who, on social media, likened quarantine after entering the country to prison, the Sharks said in a statement last week.

"At the moment, we're happy to be home," said Wright. "We are clearing the balcony to make space to sit in the sun. The boys yesterday were playing indoor hockey with light sabers, Lego was everywhere. So, yeah, we're in a positive mindset at the moment."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!