Flights from Tokyo to Beijing this week were impossible to find: The closest available flight was to Kunming, in the southern province of Yunnan, some 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) away. There, I will spend 21 days in quarantine, and even then, there is no guarantee that I will be allowed to enter the Chinese capital.
Since mid-December, China’s average daily case count has risen by double digits to more than 20,000. At least 27 cities across the country are under full or partial lockdown, affecting around 180 million people, according to CNN calculations.
Some of the strictest measures are in place in the country’s financial powerhouse, Shanghai, where many of its 25 million residents have been holed up inside their residential compounds for more than a month, creating discontent that has flooded China’s internet. heavily guarded.
The number of cases in Beijing remains low compared to Shanghai: 34 new cases were reported in the capital on Friday, bringing the total number of cases to 228 during this outbreak.
But China is taking no chances as it seeks to stem the spread of the virus within its political center.
travel to china
My trip to China this week was even more difficult than when I traveled to Beijing in February for the Winter Olympics, which were held under the strictest anti-Covid measures in the world. Officials, media and athletes were then separated from the Chinese public by an extensive network of physical barriers, quarantine periods and regular covid tests.
Now, to enter China, I had to provide three negative PCR tests from government-approved clinics, taken seven days before departure, then two more within 48 hours of flight.
On the plane, all the flight attendants were wearing hazmat suits, as were the staff at the Kunming airport. Upon landing, all passengers on my flight were immediately instructed to take another covid test, a nasal and throat swab that made them cry.
Most of the passengers on my flight seemed to have Chinese passports.
Foreigners are only allowed in under very limited circumstances, and it is exceptionally difficult for American journalists to obtain visas from China due to deteriorating US-China relations. Both countries agreed to relax visa restrictions on each other’s journalists after a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping last November. I was granted a visa earlier this year after several rounds of interviews.
But still, when I turned in my US passport, the immigration officer spent several minutes flipping through the pages, then called out to a group of workers with “police” written on their hazmat suits. It seemed that I was the only one on the separate flight.
I was taken to a private room for questioning and, after a lengthy police questioning about my professional and personal life, I was allowed to continue through immigration and customs.
After passing immigration, I struck up a conversation with the man next to me as we waited to board the bus to the quarantine hotel. He is from Shanghai, but has lived in Japan for the past 30 years. He hadn’t been back to China since the pandemic began, but eventually decided the 21-day quarantine to enter the country was worth it to visit his elderly mother in Shanghai. The city is now under a week-long Covid lockdown, so his only option was to fly to Yunnan and wait until the situation improves.
China’s National Health Commission said on Friday that the “covid-19 zero policy” had shown initial results in Shanghai and the situation across the country shows a downward trend.
21 days in hotel quarantine
Not a single seat was empty on the bus and our luggage was stacked in the aisles. From the bus window, I watched Kunming, a city of 6.6 million people, pass by at night, bright lights illuminating buildings and roads.
After a two to three hour drive, we arrived at our quarantine location: a hot springs hotel converted into a quarantine facility. Workers in hazmat suits escorted me to my room.
The next morning, I realized that my room has a stunning view of Kunming: an expanse of green trees and mountains dotting the horizon. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, a popular tourist destination, famous for its beautiful scenery and tea-producing regions.
There is a balcony, but I can’t go out. But I am grateful for the view and, more importantly, for the possibility of opening the window for fresh air, in some quarantine facilities that is prohibited.
I can’t open my door, except for health checks and food collection. I get two temperature checks a day and regular Covid tests, sometimes twice a day.
Food deliveries are not allowed, but breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the quarantine fees, which vary depending on the hotel you are taken to; no choice where to go.
Meals come in plastic containers, placed on a chair outside the door three times a day, usually rice, soup, and stir-fried meats and vegetables. I supplement the meals with snacks that I brought back from Tokyo, after hearing about the bad food in the quarantine hotels. Luckily I don’t mind the food on my own.
In my room there is no refrigerator, microwave or laundry service. Only one towel is distributed for the entire 21 days. I packed my own yoga mat, jump rope, and dumbbells for exercise. Despite the hot weather, it is approximately 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius), the hotel will not turn on the air conditioning due to concerns about the transmission of Covid.
Assuming he continues to test negative, he may not make it to Beijing yet. If the capital goes into full lockdown, all flights are likely to be cancelled.
Even before this latest outbreak, arrivals from parts of China deemed “high risk” were required to spend another 14 days in government quarantine in Beijing. Fortunately, Yunnan is not one of them at the moment. Incoming domestic travelers from lower-risk destinations must spend at least seven days sealed in their homes for health screening.
Chinese authorities have doubled down on the zero-Covid policy, arguing that it has allowed the country to avoid the explosion of deaths in other parts of the world and will buy time to vaccinate vulnerable groups such as the elderly and children.
“If we lose the Covid control measures, a large number of people will be infected with many critical patients and deaths, causing the medical system to be overwhelmed,” Deputy Director of the National Health Commission Li Bin said on Friday.
But critics say the policy has more to do with politics than science.
President Xi has put his personal stamp on “zero-Covid,” and officials have frequently used the low mortality rate to argue that China’s system is superior to the West, where restrictions have been eased to reflect rising numbers. vaccination rates.
But in China, there is no sign of change, and people are getting more and more fatigued.
In the third year of the pandemic, China still refuses to live with Covid. No case is tolerated, regardless of the cost.