Kiwi businessman David Mahon endures a novice swabber and a month of isolation on his return to Covid-hit China.
Close to midnight at Auckland Airport, a few masked passengers and staff move past shuttered shops and restaurants, lost in their own thoughts, or in the glow of their phones. The passengers are furtive, and as we board the plane for Guangzhou, anxiety is palpable.
During an intended short visit from Beijing, where I've been based since the mid-1980s, I've become marooned for a year in my homeland and city of birth, Auckland. I've strengthened bonds of family and friendship, and experienced the uncommon community of New Zealanders facing Covid.
New Zealand went into isolation more out of fairness to the vulnerable few than fear of authority or becoming ill. Now, I'm returning to China, where my business partners have striven for a year to serve our clients, while maintaining morale in their locked-down lives. Chinese people, too, have complied with their Government's requirements, also out of a sense of unity rather than fear of authority, despite the clichés in the Western media that China is a dictatorship.
Leaving this safe, isolated country for the unknown world of Covid, I feel a sense of purpose mixed with uncertainty – more about the health-vetting processes I will have to endure than fear of the illness itself. Twenty-one days of quarantine in a hotel in Guangzhou without being able to leave the room, then a further seven days in isolation at home in Beijing lie ahead of me, marked off by regular nasal and oral swabs.
There are only crackers and nuts on the flight, and tea poured from time to time by friendly, white-hazmat-clad cabin staff. I imagine how I will work them into a bedtime story to tell a grand-nephew over the phone in the coming weeks: perhaps, "Kidnapped by polar bears?"
There is little communication between the few passengers as we fly the 11 dark hours that transcend five time zones. At 4.30am, the towns and cities of the Pearl River Delta glitter like broken necklaces below the aircraft. Still trussed up in their white gear, the crew move through the cabin, rousing passengers and offering more tea. They must be so uncomfortable wearing this regalia the whole flight.
In the otherwise-vacant Guangzhou Airport, similarly hazmat-swathed "polar bears" instruct us in heavily Cantonese-accented Mandarin on health protocols. There's increased fear among the passengers. A few children sense their parents' anxieties and start grizzling and crying. With most Covid cases in China coming from the borders and arrival/quarantine facilities, officials are understandably also anxious. Some speak calmly and clearly; others gabble dominantly, eyes flaring. When I ask one woman to repeat what she has said, she speaks even louder and faster, her eyes wide with fear.
I walk along a line of desks, dismissed by a series of friendly waves from seated Health Ministry officials in full regalia – no one wants to deal with the only foreigner – to a table opposite a woman in her late-20s. She asks me something in English I don't understand. I say: "I speak Chinese, but please speak slowly."
I can see only her eyes, but she is smiling. She guides me through a series of online registrations, logging onward travel plans and downloading QR codes to the WeChat app on my phone. One QR code will become active when I finish my initial 21 days of quarantine. Without it, I won't be able to get into a cab, enter a shop or restaurant, or take a train or aircraft.
Many New Zealanders have recently chosen not to use their Covid-tracing apps regularly. In China, the choice to register has been made for everyone by the Government.
With fewer than four Covid deaths per million, China's society and economy have largely recovered; the UK, in comparison, will soon record 1750 deaths per million. After frequent conversations with clients, colleagues and friends, two of whom are scientists, I'm returning with reasonable certainty that the case numbers being reported in China are probably accurate.
In the queue for the Covid tests, people glance furtively at those coming back from the testing rooms. Along the corridor, we can hear gurgles, gasps, cries and some protests. I tell myself it can't be worse than Auckland, which had been only uncomfortable.
Those tested gather their hand luggage and hurry away; some appear flustered, but most look stoic. In my testing booth, a supervisor tells the young nurse as she attempts the nasal swab, "Not like that. You'll get the hang of it after you've done a few." It is her first day on the job.
The nasal and throat swabs prompt mild gagging reflexes and involuntary snorts, but they are not painful. I thank her and leave.
I've been told by Chinese friends that, to avoid being dumped for three weeks in a two-star guest house in a remote Guangzhou county, I should ask for the China Southern Airport Hotel, and keep stepping out of the bus queues until I'm sure the bus is going there. I'm hoping for a large room full of light with a window that opens, and a view of a bush-clad hill with a temple on it.
I'm led to the bus lines, where masked, pensive people jostle bags and each other, often apologetically, cramming the luggage compartments as white-suited figures continue to relay instructions. I settle uncomfortably in a seat with a broken back, nursing my bag on my knees, but after 15 minutes we come to a large airport hotel.
"Do you have a room with light?", I ask on checking in. "I don't expect special treatment, but I'm here for 21 days." The hazmat man nods. We exchange WeChat details and I trundle my bags past one more temperature check to the lift for the ninth floor. The room is large and full of light. I can see green hills against a backdrop of low blue mountains. But no temple.
The days begin. Friendly Health Ministry staff take twice-daily temperature checks.
Adequate but bland meals in plastic panniers are left at the door three times a day. These I quickly cancel, ordering online from the few surrounding restaurants. The windows open only a few millimetres, but after unscrewing the clip preventing them from opening wider, I turn off the air-conditioning and my room fills with fresh winter air.
Sensing that the hotel will not be full, I ask the front desk if I can upgrade to a suite if one becomes free. Two days later, at a marginal increase to my room rate, I am sitting in a large, east-facing, two-room suite, looking at my other request, an exercise bike.