/Life under home quarantine in Chinas virus nightmare

Life under home quarantine in Chinas virus nightmare

A phone call to the local government official in charge of my compound confirms my worst fears. I am effectively under house arrest, starting immediately.

Because I had left my home city (Shanghai), new rules in response to the COVID-19 outbreak mean I must undergo 14 days’ home quarantine. I am not allowed to leave the compound. No visitors. No excuses.

While often asleep or on their phones, guards man the single entrance to the compound of houses where I live 24 hours a day so it appears there’s no chance of sneaking out.

My neighbours, who have not left Shanghai during the outbreak, will also become virtual prisoners starting this Sunday. Each household in the compound is issued a ticket which will allow one member of the family to leave once a day to go shopping.

Security guards monitor thermographic images of passengers walking through a temperature screening point at an entrance to a Shanghai subway station. Bloomberg

While I knew these draconian measures were being implemented in other Chinese cities, it was a shock they were now on my doorstep. Shanghai is usually a thriving business hub and one of China’s most modern cities. But while the coronavirus outbreak has been relatively contained here, it is also a migrant city and there are fears millions of returning workers pose a potential threat.

But like many things in China, the rules governing my house arrest are contradictory and do not make sense.

It does not matter where you have travelled from (Hong Kong has a much lower infection rate than mainland China). The rules vary from district to district and appear to be at the whim of the local official in charge of a particular compound. Most of my friends in Shanghai are still free to come and go as they please even though they left the city, although they are not allowed visitors.

I am also given special dispensation to go out shopping for food the afternoon I arrive. While grateful for the opportunity to fill my fridge and nip down to the wine shop, I cannot help wonder if this defeats the whole point of “quarantine”.

It is a strange feeling knowing your freedom of movement has been curtailed. I am lucky compared to many as I work from home so I can still do my job. But as a fairly social person, I fear I will be climbing the walls in a week.

On the flipside, there’s a pile of unread books. the prospect of Netflix binge-watching and overdue office expenses to complete. Couriers are still allowed to deliver food to the front gate so I’m unlikely to starve. My dog Huey, who will be my sole companion for the time being, is in heaven at the prospect of 24/7 attention.

It is not unusual for foreign journalists to be detained for short periods in China, but this takes it to a whole new level.

A delivery man in Shanghai. Bloomberg

Jokes aside, the increasingly tight controls on day-to-day life are alarming for millions of Chinese families who do not know when life is going to return to normal. A friend’s 15-year-old son has not left their apartment for two weeks and has to complete an online health check each morning with his temperature and confirmation he has not had any contact with anyone from Hubei province. Government workers here are being told not to come back until at least March.

At the same time that President Xi Jinping is calling for people to return to work, local governments are confining them to their homes.

After the Hubei government reported a huge spike in infections this week because it had been under-reporting the numbers, many people are more paranoid than usual that the government is not telling them the truth. “Don’t look at the numbers, watch what measures the government is taking,” one wise friend who has lived in China for three decades told me.

Despite the rising anxiety, there is also an extraordinary level of compliance among the Chinese people that would never occur in a country like Australia if Scott Morrison started locking us up in our homes.  The Chinese government are masters at control and, in this case, it might not be a bad thing if it means to end to the coronavirus nightmare.