Report from a quarantine room in China, Jan. 2022

A Report from the Quarantine Room in China in Jan 2022
By Martin Woesler <>

If you want to go to China, which is almost Corona-free, you will be bloodied over several times: Only direct flights are allowed, these cost ten to twenty times as much and are fully booked for months. Finally I get a return ticket for January 4 from Frankfurt to Shanghai. Only those who prove shortly before departure that they have no corona in their blood or lungs receive the coveted green code on their cell phone.

Where could I get my blood drawn and analyzed within 24 hours? I asked at the Chinese Consulate, who referred me to their list of recognized laboratories. I checked the list, which only says “Medical facilities in North Rhine-Westphalia” for my state. Finally, I found what I was looking for at the MVZ Düsseldorf: $ 200 in fees, and the result would be on my cell phone within 5 hours, I was promised, but it came after 11 hours.

After being away for two years due to Corona, I am now to return to China with its No-Corona strategy, while in the United States and Europe the infection figures are exploding with the Omikron variant. In China, Tianjin goes into lockdown because of 2 Omikron cases.

But hours before departure, there was still no green code. I had filled out everything and, since pdfs were not allowed, converted the numerous attachments into graphic files and uploaded them. I called the Chinese Consulate: The United Nation’s vaccination certificate alone was not enough, I had to fill in an additional form with the address, telephone number and e-mail address of the people who had vaccinated me.

A thriller of nerves – I had to fill out the web form five times, each time completely from scratch. After entering the user name, there was a hitch – a programming error. With a bit of clicking around, I was able to move on and fought my way through to “nationality” – only Chinese were allowed here – another abort.

Looking for help, I couldn’t find the phone numbers on the German version of the embassy’s corona related website, but on the Chinese one. Explanation given me on the phone: Yes, the WeChat app I was using may now only be used by Chinese, foreigners would have to use a browser now.

Once I got as far as uploading the vaccination passport, there was a limit of three pages to upload, but the vaccination passport and supplementary form had four pages – what to do? I merged the two pages of the vaccination passport into one page with a graphics program.

The Pfizer vaccine listed in the vaccination certificate was not even approved in China – the far less effective Chinese vaccines, on the other hand, were approved.

With a pounding heart, I recalled the last flight attempt in the summer of 2021: Here I received a red code shortly before departure. The travel agency refunded the flight ticket only half a year later and only after I called in a lawyer. – Would this fifth flight attempt also end like that fourth one?

Suddenly, a green code appeared on my cell phone. Unbelievable: I can check in!

At the gate, the next surprise: There was a square and a round QR code, which you had to scan and then fill out two more web forms. Again it was in limbo, the whereabouts of the last 14 days were not accepted and there was no reason given. Only when I tried around and entered 15 days, it worked.

At the end of the gangway, a trellis of four figures in full-body protective suits with masks and protective face shields awaited us. What seemed threatening at first would quickly turn out to be the new normal: For the next three weeks, everyone we met would be in such cleanroom suits. Inevitably, I felt like one of the laboratory objects in Wuhan where the gain-of-function method was used to make the virus more infectious and deadly for humans. Would the laboratory marker CGG-CGG also be found in my gene sequence later?

The flight attendants did not serve food. They only made sure that the approximately 40 free seats in the back and the first rows remained free. Rationale: If everyone stays in their seats stored in the computer system, one can quarantine direct seat neighbors and better track infection chains. Why 80 passengers were not allowed a lower risk through seat allocation in the system with one seat distance was not explained.

And the flight attendants performed a shamanistic ritual by walking through the aisles and spraying disinfectant into the air – occasionally they also waved a futuristic-looking wand and knocked rhythmically on the overhead bins. Those familiar with China see the roots of Chinese poetry staged here: The dance of the shamans around the fire and the waving of ritual objects.

On the plane, I wore the FFP3/N99 respirator all the time. After all, no food was served. The incantation rituals had no effect: 4 of the more than 300 passengers became infected with Corona on the way to the airport or on the plane, as it was later stated in the official statistics published on the Internet. There you can also find the case of flight CZ328 from Los Angeles to Canton two weeks earlier: 16 infected. This was one of the last planes getting to China from Germany or the United States before most of the flights were cancelled due to high incidences. Hopefully flights will be allowed again in March.

On the plane, another round QR code was shown to us to scan for, new filing. This time, the code was red. I quickly deleted it and gave the details according to the tips from my seat neighbors and the code turned yellow. After landing, the plane was held up by customs for an hour. Determined, the customs officer, also in full body white, came up to me: “Is it true that there were Corona cases among your contacts in the last two weeks?” – I answered in the negative. “Then why did you tick on the form that there were Corona cases in your ‘community’?” – I answered, “The cases were not among my contacts, but there have been cases in my hometown, which is the city of Bochum.” – “‘Community’ does not mean ‘hometown’ but ‘direct contacts’. Then you should also delete the screenshot with the red code and use the yellow one, according to which there was no Corona case in your community. And always answer that way later.” No sooner said than done, all passengers were allowed to disembark.

The entire airport was closed off for our plane, our baggage carousel was the only one running. The airport shopping facilities were all closed. So one lived two to three weeks out of the suitcase.

For five hours, we queued through serpentines of provisionally cordoned off corridors at the airport from one checkpoint to the next. The few (perhaps 5%) passengers of non-Chinese heritage were quickly identified: they adhered to the 1-1.50 meter spacing rule and had a gap in front of them in the queue, which was, however, repeatedly filled by queue jumpers who looked at the foreigners over the mask happily as if to say: ‘Thanks for keeping it free.’ Again more scanning of QR codes, more filling out of forms on cell phones.

Somehow, the queue got outside to a container testing facility. Here, too, the familiar shamanistic ritual of spraying disinfectant into the air. During the rather brutal swabbing in the rear nasal cavity and with two sticks next to the tonsils, I had to cough involuntarily. Now I understood why splash protection is also part of the full suit. We never got told the test results, not for this test, and not for the approximately 10 tests following the next weeks – in China it was good enough it was in the system and I am sure I would see immediate action if a test was positive.

While waiting for the shuttle buses and hotels (you won’t get to know which hotel), you have to hand over your passport. This is only given back upon arrival at the quarantine hotel. At least with a Chinese GPS lead map app you can follow on your cell phone where you are going. In front of the hotel you have to wait for an hour. Then again the shamanistic ritual of spraying disinfectant into the air, in front of the bus and in the hallway at the luggage.

Again in the hotel lobby a rabid smear with coughing irritation and advance payment of just under 6,000 Yuan ($ 940) for the first two quarantine weeks. Those who do not stay in Shanghai have to spend a third, sometimes a fourth week in quarantine at their destination, where another half is due.

When I removed the respirator after about 20 hours and looked at myself in the mirror, the bridge of my nose was chafed. Taking the respirator off, I was hit by the smell of disinfectant. This seems to be used lavishly in the hotel. In the following days, a layer of skin from the chafed area came off, and there was a lot of bleeding.

The quarantine room welcomed me with 4 plastic cans of white pills and several pages of quarantine rules – of course only in Chinese. On the pill box I recognized a “3” – Did this mean swallowing an unknown medicine 3 times a day? It was only when I read the Chinese description that I realized: These were disinfection tablets, which one must drop into the toilet half an hour before wing it (1 for number one, 6 for number two), so that the virus was neutralized and also could not penetrate by sewage pipes into the rest of China.

The window was taped shut from the outside, so there was no view of the sky. I couldn’t leave the quarantine room. The always-lit hallway was under camera surveillance, and an alarm would go off immediately if I leaned out of the door or, say, when a protective-suit person took my temperature twice a day or took a swab twice a week.

Three times a day, Chinese food was placed on a stool in front of the door. Those who could not tolerate glutamate, who were vegetarians, or could not eat with chopsticks might have a hard time. In the hotel room there was an empty mini-fridge, about 1 liter of water bottles per day (tap water is not drinking water in China), but there was no stove and no microwave. The TV was already on, and the more than 200 ideologically sychronized TV channels banned with a push of a button on the remote control.

Without a VPN app, WhatsApp, Google, Facebook and Messenger won’t work in the room, not even Amazon Prime. You could then only be helped by Chinese friends or your Chinese employer – if you can somehow reach them.

Already on the second day of quarantine, I had heared strange noises through the thin wall to the neighboring room: A scratching, then there was a major furniture rearrangement, finally the door was slightly opened and a name was softly called into the hallway several times. On day five, I found myself nibbling at the frayed adhesive film of the window, which can only open a crack downward, in order to see something – classic quarantine paddy.

Quarantine in China is effective: it is a core component of a hermetically sealed country whose government has a no-COVID policy. Of course, this strategy is also necessary because it could not withstand waves of pandemics for lack of an effective vaccine and a patchy health care system. Objectively, however, millions of lives have certainly been saved in this way. Despite all the self-sufficiency propaganda, China must open up again at some point. But how? It can only get out of isolation by allowing Western vaccines to be used, or until its own inventions improved, by making vaccination compulsory and waiting for the virus variants to weaken.

Only before the first swab at the airport was I asked for my consent – no wonder, according to Chinese data law all my data and all data about me belong to the Chinese state. Several times I looked at my score at Sesame Credits from Alipay: It remained unchanged, so I had probably complied in terms of the social credit system.

The flight to China shows me that we humans become objects at the mercy of algorithms. Their decision is based on correlation and not causality. Programming errors like the wrong understanding of the term “community” have massive direct effects. The Chinese state has used digitization to create a dystopia along the lines of Chilean and Japanese cybernetic utopias. The goal: maintaining the power of the rulers, loyalty of the citizens not through conviction, but through indoctrination and external control.

This is the final consequence of the competition between two social systems: Conviction or external control, personal responsibility or incapacitation, freedom or coercion.  Under quarantine, I experienced the price you pay when an autocratic system wants to keep the pandemic outside its Great Wall at all costs.

Writing this, I still have one week of quarantine ahead in a Changsha hotel unknown to me. After I will come out of quarantine, I can teach without a mask on hundreds of Chinese students. As usual, I will start by asking them, “What is the best and oldest culture in the world, superior to all others and soon to dominate the world?” – “The Chinese one!” more than 90% of my students answered in the past. After 15 weeks of classes, I would ask the same question at the end of the semester. So far, it has been a very different figure. So taking on the quarantine is worth it.

Quarantine photos by the author:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.