What it's like to return to China's zero-COVID bubble

What it’s like to return to China’s zero-COVID bubble

After spending the past two months in the United States and Canada, Marketplace Chinese correspondent Jennifer Pak has returned to China’s zero-COVID territory. This is his second trip.

Here’s what has changed and what hasn’t.

Simpler test requirements

Pre-boarding tests have been simplified a bit. Under the old rules in January, I had to submit a negative PCR test and do a blood test for a certain type of antibody that may be present if one has recently recovered from COVID.

When I flew in early November, I only had to provide two negative PCR tests taken at least 24 hours apart at two different testing facilities.

As of last Friday, the Chinese government further reduced the requirement to a PCR test performed within 48 hours.

“Green” QR code

My test results, along with my personal information, are sent to the nearest Chinese consulate for approval before boarding. If I succeed, I receive a “green” QR code.

“black” QR code

Next, I complete an online form for Chinese customs, listing all the countries I have visited in the past 14 days. I am then issued a “black” QR code.

Longer check-in times

Checking in for China-bound flights is taking longer as airlines have to double-check “green” and “black” QR codes and related documents for each passenger.

Last time I arrived at the Calgary airport 3.5 hours early. Because the flight was delayed, I missed the connection to Shanghai; this time I arrived four hours early.

Pak's flight from Toronto to Shanghai stopped in Seoul for a crew change.
Pak’s flight from Toronto to Shanghai stopped in Seoul for a crew change. Most international flights do this to circumvent the Chinese quarantine. The new crew stays on the plane in Shanghai and leaves with it. (Jennifer Pak/Market)

Flights are still limited

Until last Friday, China operated a circuit breaker policy, which meant that if a number of passengers on the same flight tested positive for COVID on arrival, the airline was forced to suspend flights.

Before the pandemic, there were 325 scheduled weekly flights between the United States and China, according to the US Department of Transportation. This has been reduced to around 20 weekly flights.

The United States has hit back at Chinese carriers, citing that the circuit breaker policy “places undue culpability on carriers,” especially when all passengers are fully tested and pre-approved by the Chinese government.

Last Friday, China finally got rid of the circuit breaker policy.

Flight prices are falling, but still expensive

Flight prices have since dropped.

When I left Shanghai in September, the $8,000 return tickets to the US were considered cheap. Airfares have been much lower in recent days but have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, in part because many airlines do not fly directly to mainland China.

My flight from Toronto to Shanghai included a quick layover in Seoul to change crew. Most international flights do this so new crews don’t have to disembark in China. This allows them to bypass Chinese quarantine procedures.

Travel problems are typical

In addition to China’s zero-COVID rules, there are the usual frustrations of air travel; my flight from Calgary was delayed two hours and the flight from Toronto took off three hours late.

The crew change in Seoul was supposed to be a 45-minute layover, but due to aircraft problems, it turned into a seven-hour layover. The passengers were forced to disembark and re-enter security at Incheon Airport in Seoul. As liquids are not permitted, some passengers would not be able to transport their duty-free alcohol purchased in Toronto. They were livid.

Enter zero-COVID

Posters supporting China's anti-pandemic measures pasted in the quarantine hotel processing area, blocking any view of Shanghai from Pudong airport.  (Courtesy of Pack)
Posters supporting China’s anti-pandemic measures pasted in the quarantine hotel processing area, blocking any view of Shanghai from Pudong airport. (Jennifer Pak/Market)

The hard part begins once we land in Shanghai. Not much has changed since the last time I took this trip.

A pandemic worker stands outside a quarantine hotel in Shanghai with a bus full of grumpy passengers waiting behind him.  It usually takes 4-6 hours after arrival for incoming travelers to reach their quarantine hotels.  (Courtesy of Pack)
A pandemic worker stands outside a quarantine hotel in Shanghai with a bus full of grumpy passengers waiting behind him. It usually takes 4-6 hours after arrival for incoming travelers to reach their quarantine hotels. (Jennifer Pak/Market)

We sat on the plane until the Chinese authorities gave us permission to disembark. Presumably, they check our papers, or “green” codes. It takes between 45 minutes and two hours.

Once we exit the plane, a looped path leads us to scan our “black” QR codes, take our temperatures, and descend two flights of stairs to the PCR testing site.

‘Pull your mask down to cover your mouth,’ said a woman in a hazmat suit, sticking a cotton swab so far up my nose it felt like it was brushing against me the brain.

She held the swab for 10 seconds before swirling it around and leaving it for another 10 seconds, forcing me to cough. It’s quite an unpleasant experience.

Quarantine hotels

Quarantine hotels are assigned to passengers according to neighborhoods. We are not told where we will be staying until the shuttle arrives at the hotel.

Some passengers peeked into the hotel lobby and got back on the bus. They asked to be taken to a better hotel in the area. Their complaints fell on deaf ears.

Once we were able to get off the bus, people in hazmat suits started barking orders: “Do (another) PCR test! Disinfect your luggage! Stay three feet apart! It’s a pandemic!”

A passenger cracked. “Hey! Could you be more polite? I was just in the US and no one is wearing a mask. What’s so dangerous now about COVID?”

It took 46 hours from the time I left my parent’s house in Calgary to arrive in my quarantine room in Shanghai.

Quarantine

Plastic stools are placed outside quarantine rooms for contactless meal deliveries.  Customers are only allowed to collect meals once they hear an automated message.  (Courtesy of Pack)
Plastic stools are placed outside quarantine rooms for contactless meal deliveries. Customers are only allowed to collect meals once they hear an automated message. (Jennifer Pak/Market)

Once inside our rooms, we are not allowed to open the door except to have our meals or for PCR tests.

In between, they soak the hallways in disinfectant at least four times a day.

The duration of quarantine for incoming travelers has shortened since the last time I took this trip:

  • January 2022: 21 days of quarantine = 14 days at the hotel + 7 days at home
  • November 5: 10 days quarantine = 7 days hotel + 3 days health surveillance (although some local districts treat this as a de facto home quarantine)
  • Policy updated November 11: 8 days quarantine = 5 days hotel + 3 days home

Since the policy update came in the middle of my hotel quarantine, I got the call from the local Center for Disease Control only on day 7 telling me that I could complete the rest of my quarantine – one more day – home.

Pak is released from the hotel for home quarantine.  No one helps him with the luggage as incoming passengers and their belongings are treated as contagious.  Her luggage was continuously soaked in disinfectant when entering and leaving the quarantine hotel.  (Courtesy of Pack)
Pak is released from the hotel for home quarantine. No one helps him with the luggage as incoming passengers and their belongings are treated as contagious. Her luggage was continuously soaked in disinfectant when entering and leaving the quarantine hotel. (Jennifer Pak/Market)

However, the shuttle driver said that it was really up to our Communist neighborhood committees to decide when we were free. At least we were out of that hotel.

“This hotel was so dirty. There was a layer of hair on the carpet,” one passenger said. “They treat us like we’re the virus,” said another woman, adding that the hotel felt like a prison.

Arrived at my stop, I say goodbye to my fellow prisoners. I paid 3,300 yuan ($470) for six nights of hotel quarantine, including meals.

China makes this trip difficult because its borders are officially closed. I feel like they don’t really want people to come.

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

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