Hotel Quarantine My journey through the world's strictest Covid-proof border

By Justin Jin

My phone rings in Brussels. It’s my brother in Shanghai. He’s calling to tell me our father has cancer and I need to get there to help make medical decisions. Fast. But the world is engulfed by a pandemic, and I’m sitting in a contaminated continent that tops China’s unwanted list.

To get on one of the few exorbitant flights, I have to pass two Covid-19 tests. One will draw a sample from my nose and the other from my blood, both within 48 hours before departure at a lab approved by the local Chinese consulate. When I get my results, I have to upload them together with a long list of personal data via a phone app to the consulate, which then activates a QR “health” code on my phone required for boarding my plane in Amsterdam.

The country that faltered after the first known outbreak in Wuhan has now successfully tamped down the virus; they don’t want to let it back in from outside. China mandates all incoming travellers to go into a two-week strict quarantine. Those arriving from European countries, which many Chinese perceive as unwilling or unable to control the outbreak, are particularly suspect. In Sweden, where I spent the summer months, only the neurotic seemed to worry about Covid. Only once I saw a group of medics screening people at a shopping centre. It was for hair-lice.

After taking two weeks to get everything needed for the flight, I jolt as I board my plane in Amsterdam. Expecting smiling air stewards and hostesses, I see a phalanx of operators covered from head-to-toe in hazmat suits. Am I dangerous, or are they? Should I not also be shielded from the virus like they are? Their extreme caution makes me feel like a suspicious specimen abducted onto an UFO.

I must admit I am shocked to see this. I feel like a specimen abducted onto an UFO because the crew treats me with such caution.

Many of the mostly Chinese passengers come fully protected too. Since each of us carries double-negative results to get on the flight, this cabin must be one of the safest places in Europe. They follow instructions to stay in their seats as much as possible, even avoiding the loo during the 12-hour flight. I also skip the toilet, my confidence shaken by the behavior of people around me.

Many passengers abroad the plane wear full-body PPE suits to protect themselves against possible Covid-19 infection.

Once I walked around with my flimsy mask on to shoot a few pictures of the passengers. A woman with a face-shield shouted across the cabin at me to sit down “for public safety.”

I chat with one PPE-suited air-hostess. Her trans-continental work, challenging enough on normal days, has become downright brutal during the pandemic.

She and her crew are not allowed to take off their PPEs during the flight and are advised to wear nappies. Their task is to protect China, which is now largely Covid-free, from the infected rest of the world.

“The suit allows us to fly back and forth without going through a 14-day quarantine each time,” she says. “But it is horrible to work in.”

Upon landing, customs officers comb through the plane to see if any one has fallen sick. Our flight gets the all clear to disembark, and we file into a Covid testing station, getting another QR code and passport check along the way. Almost everything is shielded and contactless, a precise choreography of anticipated human movement.

Even though I have by now three certified negative test results, I am still a suspect in China’s eyes. There’s always a chance of catching something on the way. And since a PCR test is not fail-safe, I shall endure a 14-day strict quarantine at my own cost.

Passengers are tested for Covid-19 upon landing in Shanghai and are then ushered to a designated bus that whisks them to a quarantine hotel.

A minder ushers us to a designated bus that whisks us to our quarantine hotel. Our car drives past the city that is my second home, but I cannot get out, not without triggering a public health scare anyway. Upon arrival, a medic dressed in -- you guessed it, PPE -- greets us. She probably has not been involved with the hospitality industry long.

A medic ushers arriving flight passengers into our quarantine hotel.

“Leave your bags here! Queue over there! Keep distance!” she commands through her N95 mask.

Another medic measures our temperature and gives each of us a green bucket containing disinfectants: hospital-grade chlorine tablets, antimicrobial hand-wash and alcohol swabs.

“Whenever you poo or pee, sterilise it for half an hour before flushing,” she says. “This is to protect our city’s sewage.”

I am too jet-lagged to argue.

A medic at the reception of the quarantine hotel gives guests an arrival kit consisting of: a bucket, hospital-grade disinfection tablets, anti-microbe hand-wash, a thermometer and alcohol swabs. An exterminator visits my room daily.

While I am almost sure I don’t have the virus, the staff take no chances. As I walk into my hotel room, a person in PPE fumigates the corridor I just passed. I stepped out to ask her if she really did this because of me.

“Yes,” she says. “We have to disinfect the corridor after each new arrival.”

The novelty of having someone cleaning after me quickly wears off. Throughout my stay, exterminators fumigate the corridor around six times a day; their disinfectants stain and bleach the wooden panels and carpets, and their machines whir and beep, making me feel like I’m in an ICU. They spray my room everyday too, since I might infect the trash I throw out.

Meals are delivered to my door three times a day, while hotel workers fumigate the corridor with disinfectants.

My family worries about the food. I tell them it’s a bit greasy and I have to pay for it, but it’s fine. The hotel delivers it to my door, so I can stay confined to my room. With the frequent fumigation, I imagine blankets of airborne disinfectants land on my meal, but hey.

My quarantine lunch, which I pay for.

My bigger problem is the lack of something nice to wash it down with. While we are allowed to order extra provisions from supermarkets, alcohol is banned. I guess they don’t want me to get drunk and do something stupid, like escape.

A worker in the quarantine hotel.

Not that I can. While my door is unlocked, there’s a surveillance camera pointing at it. I take three steps beyond my door to snap a few quick pictures with my phone, and my room phone rings. It is security.

“What are you doing in the corridor?” asks the person on the line. I told him I was taking a breath of fresh air.

“Why are you taking pictures?” the interrogator continues. I say it was for a souvenir.

“There is nothing to photograph. The corridor will always look the same. Please go back to your room and do not come out,” he says as he ends the call.

Every day a doctor visits me twice to record my temperature, the reading of which I yell through the closed door. Just once, she demands to do a spot check to see if I was telling the truth.

Having my temperature checked twice a day, every day.

I don’t have covid, but after a few days my bronchi feel tender from the sprays. I dare not tell that to the doctor in case she sends me to a hospital strapped to a stretcher. Reassuringly though, two mosquitoes fly around my room. Since they haven’t died from the chemicals, I assume I’m ok.

At the beginning of my stay the officers ask if I want an early transfer to my father’s home to serve out the rest of my quarantine in a scheme called “7+7”, where travelers with a local address can do the second week at home. I say yes, of course.

Before I could leave, the same person calls to let me know my application has been rejected because our neighbours refused to have me near. How cruel, these neighbours. But the officer explains they might be fearful of medics coming to our building to measure my temperature, the potentially infected trash I put in the corridor, and an emergency situation, such as a fire, when I have to flee my apartment with the rest of them. The professionals throughout the quarantine are strict but nice; though this doesn’t change my situation, it helps alleviate the feeling of being imprisoned.

I flew 10,000 km to see my sick father only to be isolated inside a room a few hundred metres away from him. On the day of my arrival, my father and my brother stood outside my hotel and waved at me from the street before heading to the hospital in preparation for the life-saving operation. This is the last time I see them during my two-week confinement.

I had wanted to be at my father's side during these angst-filled hours and days. Instead, all I could do was wish him well by video call from my hotel, a short-drive away from his hospital. The isolation room echoes my pain; the frequent medical checks and sounds of the fumigation add to the hazy confusion of who is sick and who is not, what is imagined, and what is real.

While I am sceptical of such extreme measures, my Chinese friends, and even my father, feel the government is doing the right thing to protect its citizens.

On my last day, the hotel asks me to pay a total of 7,000 yuan (approx USD1,000) for my stay, inclusive of food. It’s not a small sum for a quarantine I never asked to enter. But then, 500 yuan (approx USD80) per day does not seem to cover the gargantuan work of disinfection and logistics on top of running a four star hotel, a task that must have been even more costly to a government that heavily promotes international trade and tourism.

Having taken two weeks to prove that I’m not guilty of carrying Covid, the hotel medics now want me out fast to avoid cross-contamination with new arrivals.

Before my last day an operator called and asked me to vacate my room by 6 am so cleaners can fumigate it. “What if I oversleep?” I teased. She replied they could lock me up for another 14 days if I ran into potentially contagious new arrivals.

I left on time.

I am given a 30 minute window to follow a one-way departure route: drop off the key card, follow a marked path without touching anything, and leave from the main door as quickly as possible. Unconfined, I find myself in the middle of Shanghai.

From the street, I take in the enormousness of the building. I did not get a chance to see it on arrival because I was ushered from the quarantine bus parked in a roofed area and straight inside the hotel.

People are rushing to work on a bright new morning. They pack the metro, crowd the shops, and fill the office elevators. Dazed, I walk through a gleaming Covid-free megapolis, where people are interacting in dreamlike familiarity.

I meet my brother and go straight to our father. He is one week into recovery from a successful operation.

I visit my father at the hospital with my brother on the day of my release from quarantine. We do not need to wear face masks because we have all been tested recently.

In free and democratic Europe, people live under the repressive shadow of Covid. In China the system is restrictive, but people are free from the virus imprisoning much of the world. Free to hug, to party, and to prosper.

The same night my brother takes me to a crowded wine bar in Shanghai with friends. There are no masks, no talk of vaccines, and for a moment, no worries.

It feels so 2023.

A Christmas market in Shanghai, 2020.

Ends -

Justin Jin is an independent photographer and writer who contributes to the world's leading publications including the National Geographic and Geo. International awards attest to his dedication.

Originally from Hong Kong, now based in Brussels, Justin travels frequently on story assignments around the world. He speaks English, Chinese, Russian, French and Dutch.

He graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in philosophy and social and political sciences.