Our plane has just taken off from Shanghai, a city of gleaming skyscrapers, home to 25 million people. The city is slowly exhausting itself from China’s relentless COVID-19 zero regime.
As she approached my queue, the flight attendant spoke to me in the same anxious tone. You’re out with this little guy,” she said, looking at my rescue dog president sleeping in his carrying case under the seat in front of me. “How did you do it? And how do you feel?” she asked.
Currently, expats trying to escape Shanghai usually need consular assistance, community leader approval to undergo additional non-governmental Covid tests, a registered driver to take them to the airport, and a rare plane ticket. Find with pets).
But above all, those leaving must promise community leaders that once they get through the door they will never come back.
A desolate road leads to an empty airport
After 50 days of being locked up in the house, I could feel the neighbors staring at me in the house as I left the apartment. They would have thought I had found a quick escape route, like those who tested positive, took a bus to government quarantine, or like other expats trying to escape.
In fact, my trip had been planned for months long before the crazy lockdown began. After covering the initial outbreak in Wuhan in January 2020, I stayed while China cut itself off from the rest of the world. But after more than two and a half years away from my close Cuban-American family, I had to go back.
Commuting from the Xuhui district in central Shanghai to Pudong International Airport on the east side of the city was quite different from what I remember. The almost deserted sidewalk was lined with tape, most shops and restaurants were closed, and the doors were locked with chains and padlocks.
A small number of people on the streets, including the police, were mostly in hazmat suits. On the way to the airport, there were checkpoints lined up, and when my driver stopped, police officers checked our documents for a few minutes. Flight confirmation emails, negative corona tests, and even letters from the US embassy.
As we pulled out of the terminal I realized that there were no other cars or passengers in sight. And for a while I was afraid that my flight would be canceled.
The China I’m leaving has little to no resemblance to the one that welcomed me almost three years ago, but it reminds me of the first major story I’ve covered here.
A few months after arrival, our team was sent to Wuhan in central China after rumors of a mysterious disease began to spread. It was January 21, 2020, and within a few days, the city went into unprecedented city-wide closure, the first of many worldwide.
We, along with many others, tried to get out in a hurry, but after realizing that we could potentially be exposed, we decided to self-isolate at our hotel for 14 days before quarantine became mandatory.
In those early days, a short window of unfiltered truth opened up before Chinese censors shut it down. During that time, we spoke with relatives of the victims. Relatives of the victims risked their freedom and angered government officials who said they mishandled and covered up the early outbreak.
China was one of the first countries to close borders, build field hospitals, conduct large-scale testing of millions, and establish sophisticated contact tracing systems to track and isolate cases. attack.
Reporting from China was infamous even before COVID-19, but due to epidemic restrictions, all missions were either locked in immediate lockdown or threatened with forced quarantine.
China’s war on COVID-19 has coincided with worsening international relations, especially with the United States. American journalists like me have heavy visa restrictions. The visa duration was shorter and multiple entries were banned. So many of us stayed rather than risking being locked up in China.
Entering the creepy quiet Terminal 2 of the airport was like stepping into the next level of video games. It was a moment of relief, overshadowed by anxiety that unexpected obstacles could take me back to where I started.
The departure board only lists two destinations: Hong Kong and my destination, Amsterdam.
Shops and restaurants were not open, and even vending machines stopped working. In the far corners of the gigantic terminal building, departing travelers have left sleeping bags and piles of garbage. Some were still there and waiting for the plane I had.
At the check-in desk, passengers left the trolley lines with their luggage stacked high, waiting hours for flight attendants in white hazmat suits to check-in.
As I passed through customs and security, the sun was setting over the dark terminal. Other passengers, mostly foreigners, gathered nearby and shared similar stories while waiting to board.
One woman said, “I’m leaving after five years.” The other passenger pointed to the other couple, and she replied, “She has lived here for about seven (10) years.”
The people I spoke with seemed to have reached the same conclusion. The time they invested in China’s financial hub doesn’t matter anymore. It was time to step back and cut losses.
Through the window I could see our plane from the gate and I could see the ground crew with hazardous materials spraying each other with disinfectant, loading the last luggage and disinfecting from head to foot.
When I finally took my seat, all the lines around me were empty, and for weeks my adrenaline started to build up and my anxiety and stress started to ease. Perhaps for the first time since the outbreak began in March, I felt a sense of relief and certainty, but as the plane took off, it was tinged with the guilt of the survivors.
The flight attendants seemed fascinated by each and every passenger’s ‘escape story’ and said they had never flown on a plane with such grateful people.
As we reached cruising altitude, two of them approached my seat. one of them said “You’ve all worked hard for a few weeks, so why not take a break. I’ll drive you home soon.”
The other nodded in agreement and then pointed to her face mask. She said, “Oh, don’t be too surprised. Once you land, you’ll hardly notice anyone wearing this mask anymore.”
“You are about to enter a whole new world.”