Eight weeks ago a new virus was beginning to claim the first of thousands of lives. Foreign nationals jumped on planes home from China, and the Chinese with foreign visas made good use of them – even if it meant not returning to their families for the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Today the situation is largely reversed as domestic cases of Covid-19 infection have been reduced to a trickle while the coronavirus rips through countries such as Italy, France, the UK and the US.
The Chinese who fled the country or who stayed away in the early stages of the virus – often doubting their government’s ability to handle the outbreak – are now trying to fly home.
Foreign nationals are returning as their workplaces reopen in China or simply because they see a bigger risk from the virus in staying in their own countries.
But getting back isn’t easy.
As the Chinese authorities begin to relax some of the restrictions on internal movement, they have also introduced strict quarantine measures on those arriving from overseas to guard against “reinfection”.
Indeed, according to senior government medical advisor Zhong Nanshan, so-called “imported” cases now pose a far greater risk than the internal spread of Covid-19
“At present, the main task is to prevent and control cases imported from overseas,” Zhong said at a press conference last week.
To this end, all arrivals face some form of two-week quarantine. In Beijing – where Chinese leader Xi Jinping has ordered particular vigilance – most are being sent to quarantine hotels, where they are monitored for signs of the infection.
Staying at the hotels costs between Rmb300 ($42) and Rmb600 a day – expenses which are borne by the traveller.
In other cities local governments are allowing people to quarantine at home if there are community officers that can enforce the 14-day isolation period.
German pharmaceutical giant Bayer also announced on Tuesday that it had sacked an employee after the woman – an Australian citizen—refused to comply with the quarantine rules in China. A video circulating on social media showed her leaving her house and going for a run during the mandatory homestay.
On Monday, 20 of the country’s 21 confirmed new cases were people who had arrived from overseas, National Health Commission said. The data suggests that the city of Beijing is having to deal with the most imported cases – many of which are Chinese coming home as the virus spreads in Europe and the US.
One woman with the surname Li attracted criticism after she and her family flew in from the United States after she started to feel unwell in the US. The Beijing Daily reported that she had been in contact with another Covid-19 sufferer. But when she was refused a test she began to worry about the government’s preparedness in the US and caught a flight to China. On the way she gulped down paracetamol to bring down her fever so that she could pass the various temperature checks.
Since then the authorities in China have introduced new health and travel disclosure forms that people have to complete on arrival. Failure to fill them out accurately can result in fines, loss of social credit rating scores and prosecution, authorities have warned.
So what does this mean for the Chinese economy, which is slowly coming back to life?
Local experts say restrictions of one kind or another are likely to stay in place till May. One of the main questions is whether the country will be hit by another wave of infections as internal measures are relaxed. Last week many residents of Hubei – the province at the epicentre of the outbreak – were allowed out of their homes for the first time in weeks.
Some have been allowed to go back to work, others have only been permitted shorter outings to the shops. People have also been issued with individual QR codes that they must present for scanning every time they enter buildings or pass police checkpoints. If your QR code comes up green, your movements are relatively unrestricted. If it comes up amber or red, your freedoms are more limited. The codes update every 24 hours based on data including where you have been travelling to and whom you have come into contact with.
If there is another surge in infections the government may have to rethink its pledge to allow events like the Canton Fair, which is currently scheduled in Guangzhou in April. But anyway, given the apparent scale of the outbreak overseas, and the mandatory two week quarantining for overseas arrivals, it is hard to see how the fair will attract more than a fraction of its normal visitors.
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