I’m teaching online when the phone rings. Again. It’s the same number I’d missed three calls from yesterday. Ten minutes later, when I’ve signed off from my class, the phone starts ringing again.
I answer and know I’m in trouble when they use my full passport name. "This is the Shanghai CDC. A passenger on your recent flight has been diagnosed with coronavirus. Are you at home? We’ve already spoken to your neighborhood committee."
The officer on the phone is busy but helpful and answers all my many questions. No, I can’t complete the quarantine at home because I was within three rows of the infected passenger. Yes, I will have time to pack, but I’ll need to be quick — they’ll let me know when the ambulance is on the way. No, I won’t have to pay anything.
Beijing is quarantining anyone who comes into the city from any country, in a hotel, and sending them the bill. Shanghai, for now, is making people quarantine who have been in 16 high-risk countries and allowing people who have registered apartments in the city to spend the time at home. Those without a registered apartment must go to one of the designated hotels.
There’s another way to end up in one of these though: sit near an infected person on a plane, train or other form of transport. That’s what happened to me. I write this from inside the quarantine hotel.
The ambulance pulls into my compound a few hours after the phone call, flanked by the neighborhood committee members. I receive another call. "Put on your mask, walk downstairs and get into the back of the ambulance with your luggage."
The driver wears a full hazmat suit and won’t answer any questions. When we pull up outside the little business hotel, my district’s quarantine center, it’s exactly what I expected: white suits and blue boots; blue medical screens everywhere; damp silence. I wait outside until instructed to enter, switch my face mask for a new one (the old one goes in a biohazard bin), hand over my passport and sit down. There’s a declaration sheet to complete first – flight details, personal information – and then a three-page booklet of rules to be carefully explained.
Rule number one is "please provide true information at all times"; it’s followed by a list of instructions for the various daily routines and exhortations to not smoke or try to leave. I ask what happens when people come into quarantine together. Partners or spouses can’t share rooms, the masked nurse says, regardless of their normal living situation. One adult can share with one child, but mid-teenage children might be debatable.
She hands me a quarantine survival kit containing chlorine tabs (more on that later), a blue bin for mixing them in, a disposable plastic cup, basic toiletries, a tiny towel, garbage bags, a thermometer (for which I’m given very clear instructions) and alcohol-soaked cotton balls to clean it with.
When I’ve signed everything, the woman behind the mask smiles and says, incongruously, "You’re all checked in. Here’s your room key. Third floor." Just like on holiday.
Every few hours, as I discover later, a hazmat-suited person strides around the corridors spraying from a whirring backpack full of a corrosive detergent that kills germs, rusts metal and dissolves paint. The elevator looks like something out of a horror movie. Everything is splattered.
Once I get into the room, I relax. It’s a classic city business hotel: brown carpets, brown curtains, shiny brown wood, impeccably clean. When I poke around in the drawers, I even find a hairdryer, kettle and slippers. This is my entire world for the next eight days (I’d already been at home for six days when the call came). It could be a hell of a lot worse.
There’s a strict routine in quarantine. At 7am and again at 1pm, an unholy din erupts in the corridor: alarms and a voice calling out floor numbers and room numbers through a megaphone. These are the residents who are scheduled to leave that day. They shout replies through their doors. They have done their time.
Next, you set up your disinfectant bucket for the toilet: 1 liter of water and six chlorine tabs for a pee; double for… well, you know. Before flushing, you pour the fuming mixture into the bowl to sterilize it. Nothing can enter or leave your room without following the set procedure.
Then there’s the morning temperature check. You take your own, then send in the result via WeChat – no unnecessary interaction. Breakfast arrives on the plastic stool outside your door. You’re told to wait at least three minutes after the knock on the door to allow the staff time to get away. At my hotel, it’s classic Chinese: congee, youtiao, egg, pickle and something steamed. It’s the best meal of the day.
Half an hour later, there’s another knock on the door. It’s the cleaners, fully masked and suited. They come in, spray all soft surfaces, wipe all hard surfaces, take your bagged and sealed trash and leave again within thirty seconds. Housekeeping in the time of coronavirus. Impeccably efficient.
Parts of this pattern are then repeated: lunch and a second temperature check at around midday; dinner six or seven hours later; new disinfectant buckets to prep as required. Lunch and dinner are always plastic trays of rice, greens and assorted meat or fish. The staff ask about allergies when you arrive but special diets seem tricky. If you’d rather, you can order waimai, delivered at the same time as the normal meals (or occasionally not at all).
Lots of people order water because none is provided. The alternative is to boil tap water, which I did for the first few days.
The other quarantees are, from the sound of it, spending their days watching Peking opera, napping and making phone calls. I try a lot of different time-fillers over the first few days: video workouts (the wifi’s good!), reading, reassuring my mother that I’m not going full Tom Hanks (in either the Castaway sense or the COVID-19 sense, hopefully). I’m very glad I packed a big bottle of whiskey, antibacterial spray, copious snacks and coffee. I’m annoyed with myself for not bringing a mug, cutlery or a big towel.
A few days in, my colleagues send me chocolate and a large melon. I break it open over the sink with my hands and eat the whole thing in an afternoon because there's no fridge. Lucky there's so much soap.
Indisputably, the center is incredibly well-managed by a diligent team who are working on the front line of a global pandemic. The routines tick over like clockwork, staff help however they can and it’s as calm as an enforced quarantine could possibly be. We’re encouraged to open the windows for fresh air (I imagined they’d be locked), and the room is too big to feel claustrophobic.
Getting the phone call will cause anxiety. It’s happened to me. But now, a few days into what happens next, from one quarantee to another – you'll be fine.
Just 132 hours to go...
*Note from SmartShanghai: The information in this article was accurate as of March 17, when it was written, and is meant to be a reflection of one person's experience. It is not a guide to quarantine procedures, which are changing day by day.