Quarantine Diary: Return to China

Day 1

I really wished I’d brought a water bottle with a straw

Thursday 12th March, 2020

Flying direct from London, I arrived at Shanghai airport knowing that things would be different, but on tenterhooks as to exactly how.

A heavy film of anxiety and urgency covered everything and everyone onboard my flight; particularly my seat neighbour, who was clad head to toe in what looked like a white beekeeper suit, complete with mask, gloves and chemistry class goggles. “I think I scared people at the airport,” he said bashfully. I assured him his outfit was completley reasonable, and he warmed up a little, telling me with the air of a resourceful kindergarten teacher that the whole lot cost just £15. 

Less happily, he was coming back to Shanghai bang in the middle of his university term, outraged by the UK government’s limp response to what he and his family saw as a dangerous crisis. “It’s way safer in China,” he shrugged, citing medical statistics and news reports I hadn’t even heard of. My own last six months had been spent doing little but leaving imprints in various sofas across the UK.

Embarrassed by my own ambivalence, I was suddenly grateful for the surgical mask a staff member thrust into my hands. The masks seem pointless and uncomfortable to me, but I was the only one on board not wearing one, so I put it on, feeling the prod of peer pressure like a physical force.

I had to slip it off deftly to sip any water – the only refreshment I and most others dared consume on board – and it was the first time I’ve felt surruptitious sipping from a bottle that doesn’t contain alcohol. The mask also had the unpleasant effect of directing my airplane breath directly back into my nostrils. I wished I’d brought some mints. 

Exhausted-looking customs staff waved me through to the train station, where a sparsely peopled carriage zoomed me back to my home city. I was delivered straight into the hands of a bustling team of beekeeper suits, this time with 市保 (“city security”) scrawled on their backs in sharpie.

Brisk but friendly enough, they shepherded me to a group of pink plastic seats where I sat and read my (banned) book for half an hour, before being told to board a bus which would take me home. Aside from myself and my three chaperones, it was completely empty.

We went via a district party office, where I waited and watched a reedy voiced woman reprimand my caretakers for something I couldn’t make out, before we got back on again and drove all the way to my apartment building. 

A temperature check, two signed forms and several explanations of the quarantine rules later, and I was being taped inside my apartment. There was something sad about standing on the inside of my door listening to the ripping sound of sellotape sealing off my freedom. Now they would know if I had even tried to open the door.

I realised that those working to transport and monitor us incoming biohazards must be worn out. They were clearly under strict instructions to not let anyone evade quarantine measures, and I would bet my internet connection that more than a few had tried hard to do so. A trip to a nearby trashcan to throw away some cardboard in the airport had nearly given my chaperone a heart attack.

I wonder if they’re paid, or punished if things go wrong. Are they all party officials? Volunteers? Regular workers unlucky enough to be in professions that are needed now more than ever?

At least people are generally obedient to law enforcement here, at least when it’s standing in front of them. I can’t picture the same level of respectful compliance if there were an outbreak in, say, Nottingham or rural London. 

Day 2. Does this even count?

Friday 13th March, 2020

Well, it was a short day in isolation today. Jet lag is an unbelievable force. I slept for 21 hours and woke up at 5pm thirsty as a horse.

With not much left to do with the day, I did my scheduled home workout – an easy combination of pushups, situps and squats – and then folded myself into my old comfort routine of a disney movie. Today’s was Dumbo. The crazier the world gets, the more I find myself drawn to the simplicity and predictability of kids movies. The day I fall back on the Teletubbies, we’ll know it’s all gone to shit.

Day 3. The Glory of Food Delivery

Saturday 14th March, 2020

It’s a painfully beautiful day outside. The amount of sleep I’m getting is a blessing, but I do miss running by the river. 

Fortunately I have been reunited with my true love – Chinese delivery service apps. Oh, Meituan, you wonderful being. Everything you can think of – fruit, vegetables, hot food, toiletries, crockery, socks, candles, stationery – delivered to your door within the hour for a fifth of what they would cost in the UK. The fact that my taped-up door means I don’t even have to go downstairs to get it shouldn’tmake me happier, but hey, an introvert’s an introvert.

I’ve ordered enough food to cook healthy vegan meals for the next two weeks and hopefully persuade the belly roll that’s been my sofa companion for the past 6 weeks to shuffle on so I can wear crop tops again.  

Building staff collect my rubbish and check my temperature twice daily. I’ve quickly learned that the mask goes on beforeyou open the door, or else you face being barked at with the ferocity of that three headed dog that guards the Greek underworld. “kouzhao dai qi lai!Mask on!” Comes the rallying cry from the rubbish collector, in a shrill voice through the crack in the door. She’s leaning so far back I simultaneously marvel at her flexibility and question her adherence to the laws of gravity. 

Of course I comply, but something about the whole situation feels slightly ridiculous for a 10-second interaction. But then maybe my feeling that way is exactly the problem. 

Once she’s gone and the immediate humor of the situation has faded, I have the chance to feel both pity and gratitude for her continuing to do important work, while I do nothing.


Ha. Suddenly it makes sense why the staff check my temperature twice a day at my door. A friend on WeChat just told me that he left his building by the back door when he was supposed to be in quarantine. So the temperature checks are also to see if you’re actually staying inside. Hahahaha.

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