I love China. I love my apartment in Shanghai, the people, the food and the friends I have made since I first arrived here three years ago. I moved for work – I’m in property development – and had no plans to return to live in the UK, until, of course, my time came to an abrupt end in February as the coronavirus epidemic gripped the country.
We first started to hear rumours in the first week of January about a new virus that was a bit like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), spreading within the city of Wuhan having originated at one of the wet food markets. I’ve been to the markets before – they’re a big part of local culture, and the food you can get there is delicious, but they’re not exactly the most sanitary of places. There’s freshly slaughtered and alive animals available to buy, including beef, chickens and fish but also some unexpected species (at least, to a Westerner like me) like crocodile and bats. Having experienced the markets, it’s pretty easy to see how viruses could jump between species there – it’s very close contact between animals that would never ordinarily mix in the wild.
I didn’t think much of the rumours at the time, but by the following week, there was news that the virus was spreading outside of the province, which was made a whole lot worse by the Chinese New Year. During the holiday season, millions of Chinese people travel around the country to visit family and friends, and it became apparent that things were getting out of control. I’m part of a big British community group on WeChat (which is like the Chinese version of WhatsApp), and people were starting to question whether they should stay. Videos were circulating of hospitals overridden with patients, with people lying on the floors of corridors and sheets covering bodies. Doctors were crying and pleading for help. The Chinese government was trying to censor the videos, deleting them off the social media platform, and sending officers round to people’s houses who had posted or forwarded any footage.
Some of the older expats in the WeChat group had been in China for the SARS outbreak, and seemed relatively calm. But the Chinese residents were not so sure. The infection was well established throughout the country now, and flights were starting to be restricted. My company closed its doors in Shanghai and I was booked on a flight to Thailand on indefinite leave. I felt relieved – I didn’t want to get stuck in the country in the midst of an epidemic.
I got on the plane to Thailand, and for the next two weeks, I tried to work remotely, taking meetings with developers and clients in Bangkok. Then I heard that the Chinese government had locked down Wuhan – a city the size of France. The virus was spreading outside of China and I was in still in a neighbouring country. It was time to go home.
I managed to book a flight back to the UK, but was met by flight attendants wearing masks and a form with instructions on what to do upon return. The worst thing? I had a hacking cough. I called 111 the second I got back to my family home in London. They immediately told me to self isolate and said they would send someone over to swab me. I headed to my bedroom and shut the door.
The man who arrived to test me was wearing a full hazmat suit, mask and a screen covering his eyes and face so that no inch of his skin was exposed. He took a swab from my nose and the back of my throat, and left promptly afterwards. The whole process took under 15 minutes, but the hours afterwards were some of the longest of my life. The next morning, they called with my results. It was negative, but I still had to isolate for 14 days. It may sound extreme, but the virus can take up to two weeks to present itself and because my dad is a doctor, who treats vulnerable patients every day, we couldn’t take any risks. For the next two weeks, I had no human contact. If I went into a communal area of my home, for example to the kitchen to get food, I had to sterilise everything I touched.
Last Friday was the last day of my isolation, and I couldn’t be happier that the whole ordeal is finally over. My company is still closed, and has taken such a financial hit due to the outbreak that they are making job cuts, so my future is still uncertain. But I’m just glad to be safe – for now, at least.