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Chinese citizens abroad seek refuge from the coronavirus epidemic - at home

Mar 17. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Anna Fifield · WORLD, ASIA-PACIFIC 

As the coronavirus started spreading across the United States last week, New York University student Jane Zhang knew what she needed to do. She needed to seek shelter from the epidemic. At home. In China.

"China has already contained the situation and there are no new domestic cases in Beijing," the 19-year-old sophomore said, "but I think the number of people with the virus in the United States is going to rise exponentially." 

So on Friday, the day the number of cases in New York state rose 30 percent overnight, she boarded a flight home to the Chinese capital. It just feels safer, she said, because authorities there have made more of an effort to ensure public health.

"The Chinese government basically pays for a patient's recovery, so we don't have to worry about how much treatment is going to cost," she said, making a contrast with the American health care system.

Plus, Americans didn't seem to be taking the epidemic seriously enough. "When the virus first broke out in the United States, no one wore a mask. The U.S. government even told people they didn't need to wear a mask," Zhang said. "That lack of awareness really surprised me."

In a matter of weeks, China has gone from being the epicenter of the virus to almost the only refuge from it, prompting hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens abroad to flock home. Some 20,000 people are arriving on flights into China every day, while five times as many arrive by land or sea, state media reported.

With many flights to China already canceled as a result of the outbreak, seats were already relatively scarce. But the sudden spike in demand means prices have skyrocketed, with the few remaining economy class seats from American airports going for four or five times the usual rate.

Xiangyuan Li, a freshman at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, had already decided to return home to Chengdu after being told on March 12 that his classes would move online. It would be boring with everyone gone from his college town, and he was worried about not being able to get into China for his summer internship.

But the growing outbreak in the United States cemented his decision.

"Certainly, China is indeed very safe now," said Li, while the United States is just becoming more dangerous. 

"The U.S. can't test everyone, like in China. Testing an entire planeload of passengers and providing results the next day is impossible in the U.S.," he said, referring to the entry procedures he went through on arrival in his home country.

There has also been a rush of returned from Britain since a government adviser advocated a "herd immunity" strategy, suggesting that it could be helpful if 60 percent of the population was infected.

Tickets from Britain are eye-wateringly expensive, if they can be found at all. A business class charter flight from London via Geneva, operated by China Eastern Airlines, was selling seats for more than $25,000 at the weekend and was completely sold out, according to the Yicai Global news site.

But this mass influx of people has created a new problem for Chinese authorities as they trumpet their achievements in containing the coronavirus and reducing infection rates to negligible levels: People are arriving with the disease. 

For the fourth day in a row, China's National Health Commission on Tuesday reported that the number of imported cases exceeded domestic transmissions. It said 21 new infections had been diagnosed the previous day - 20 of which were "imported" from abroad. A total of 143 people have arrived in the country with coronavirus, many of them from hotspots like Iran and Italy.

"Preventing imported cases has become a key task of China's epidemic prevention and control work," Wang Jun, an official with the General Administration of Customs, told reporters in Beijing this week. "We must resolutely curb the spread across the border." 

Nine of the new cases reported Tuesday were detected in Beijing, explaining why authorities in the capital are going to extreme measures to try to make sure the virus does not spread in the city that is home to the Communist Party's top officials.

Beijing's municipal government on Sunday introduced new rules requiring all people arriving in the capital go into "centralized quarantine" at hotels for 14 days upon arrival, at their own expense. 

The rules came into effect while one American, Jacob Gunter, was in the air on his way to Beijing. He live-tweeted his journey through various checks at the airport and intermediate staging posts before finally arriving at his quarantine hotel a full 12 hours later. 

Other videos posted on social media showed huge crowds of people at Beijing airport, after weeks of being empty, as multiple packed planes landed at the same time. 

Areas around the country, from Inner Mongolia in the north to Sanya on the island of Hainan in the south, have instituted similar measures, requiring stays in quarantine centers rather than trusting people to isolate themselves at home. More local authorities are expected to follow suit. 

All manner of methods are being employed to track down and punish those caught violating the rules with their "criminal activities."

Beijing police authorities have made an example of a 37-year-old Chinese woman who works at Massachusetts biotechnology company Biogen and attended the Boston conference that has been linked to other infections, according to local media reports.

She failed to report she was feeling sick before boarding her flight, took painkillers to suppress her fever and then lied to flight attendants about her condition, local police said. 

The suspicious attendants reported her to police authorities upon arrival, who quarantined her and had her tested for the virus. It came back positive. In addition to being sick, she is now under criminal investigation for obstructing infectious disease prevention.




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