A Tale of Two Quarantines

I ended up quarantined in both Beijing and Washington during the coronavirus outbreak. The experiences weren’t as different as you might think.

Left: A woman, who has recovered from the COVID-19 infection, is disinfected by volunteers as she arrives at a hotel for a 14-day quarantine after being discharged from a hospital in Wuhan, China, on March 1. Right: A passenger wears a mask on the Metro in Washington, D.C., on March 16.
Left: A woman, who has recovered from the COVID-19 infection, is disinfected by volunteers as she arrives at a hotel for a 14-day quarantine after being discharged from a hospital in Wuhan, China, on March 1. Right: A passenger wears a mask on the Metro in Washington, D.C., on March 16. STR/Alex Wong/AFP via Getty Images

In this jittery era, people talk about China and the United States being very different. Their societies and histories contrast so much that many of us have probably said sometime recently, regarding the coronavirus pandemic, that Beijing does things that are impossible in the West.

Things like draconian lockdowns.  

Yet, after undergoing self-quarantine in both countries, I was also startled by paradoxical similarities. In a quirk of serendipity, my husband and I wound up hunkered down, for 14-day periods each, in the capital cities of the world’s two most powerful nations, Beijing and Washington. Now, as we finally emerge from isolation—eager to rejoin society (or at least eat something not based on canned tomatoes)—we discover that everyone seems to be scrambling to enter the sort of isolation from which we thought we’d just been freed.

This is a tale of two quarantines. Despite all the ways autocratic Chinese apparatchiks differ from glad-handing American politicians, many of the same dynamics are unfolding in D.C. that we had witnessed in Beijing. Blame-shifting bureaucrats. Inspiring volunteers. Flip-flopping government mouthpieces and their self-serving narratives. Lurking xenophobia. We’ve seen it all—twice. The only difference is the time lag—about six weeks—before the United States launched the cycle that’s now just winding down in China.   

It’s surreal to be repeating this cycle yet again. This time, in our topsy-turvy (and fast-shrinking) universe, now it’s China—where the initial coronavirus epicenter was the city of Wuhan—returning to normal and shaking its head over the virus’s overseas rampage. On Thursday, for the first time since the pandemic began, Beijing reported no new locally transmitted coronavirus cases in the country. Any new cases were “imports,” or people coming to China from overseas, at least according to official statistics.

Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

If true, this is a major turning point and a glimmer of light in a dark landscape. Yet even if true, the path forward isn’t all sweetness and light. Today many Chinese seem as willing to vent nationalistic sentiment as many Westerners had been last month to embrace racist memes and to bully and even attack victims of Asian descent who happened to be wearing face masks. Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated Sino-U.S. tensions, resulting in tit-for-tat expulsions of journalists in both countries and an ugly exchange of xenophobic rhetoric.

Now, Europe has taken China’s place as the new epicenter of coronavirus infection. And the United States is steeling for the worst, nervously eyeing the ghastly mortality rates in Italy. On Thursday, for the first time, Italy’s total number of COVID-19 deaths, at 3,405, surpassed even China’s overall death toll of 3,249. (It’s yet more alarming when you compare Italy’s population of some 60 million against China’s over 1.3 billion people.) 

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Today, it’s Beijing and other Asian governments that are racing to prevent “imported” cases from triggering a new wave, or waves, of infection. On March 19, Beijing reported its caseload of infections had doubled in just three days, from 31 to 64. Hong Kong and Taiwan also reported recent spikes. Authorities across the region are cobbling together ever-stricter quarantine requirements for travelers entering from abroad. If these imported cases spark new cycles, that would prolong the coronavirus’ reign of fear and infection, which has already claimed over 10,000 lives.

Meanwhile, the role reversal between China and the West is playing out in the economic sector as well. China has declared itself back in business. Streets aren’t spookily vacant, as they had been last month. More and more shops, services, and even cinemas are reopened or planning to be. (My Chinese mobile once again buzzes with annoying spam calls from strangers asking me to buy, or sell, real estate). Although China’s economy suffered considerably, an article in Friday’s Financial Times, titled “China is an odd but effective refuge from the coronavirus crisis,” cited JPMorgan economists declaring, “If we are right, China will be first in, first out of a virus-induced slowdown.”

To have a Chinese health official lecturing Europe on how best to fight the coronavirus is a startling turnaround, given Western criticism of Beijing’s anti-pandemic efforts just a month or so ago.

One of the most telling signs of the Beijing regime’s resurgence is a full-bore propaganda and “going global” campaign. Chinese government officials not only have declared victory over the outbreak inside China, but they also have offered to help rescue the rest of the world. Chinese diplomats, state-run entities, and private philanthropists and entrepreneurs—including the omnipresent mogul Jack Ma—are offering to donate or sell medical supplies and provide other much-needed assistance to European governments that are running scared from COVID-19. 

A hugely ironic moment took place after Beijing sent medical experts to Italy’s beleaguered Lombardy region to lend a hand. In a Milan press conference, Chinese Red Cross Vice President Sun Shuopeng compared the area to China’s city of Wuhan—and declared Italy’s quarantine measures “not strict enough … you’re still having dinners and parties in the hotels and you’re not wearing masks.” He suggested Italy’s government make sure everyone just went home and stayed put.

To have a Chinese health official lecturing Europe on how best to fight the coronavirus is a startling turnaround, given Western criticism of Beijing’s anti-pandemic efforts just a month or so ago. And it underscores a nagging question: Why didn’t China’s earlier battle against the virus set off alarms in the West, scaring governments into preparing better for the pandemic that’s now sending them scrambling? 

Back in February, China’s central government under President Xi Jinping was struggling to cope with the horrific body count in Wuhan. The full picture of what Wuhan suffered may take time to emerge. After the city was locked down, dozens of bodies were reportedly removed from private residences; it turns out that when some family members were forced into quarantine, their absence left many of the elderly, sick, and disabled to die of neglect and even starvation. Provincial-level bungling and cover-ups sabotaged early official efforts against outbreak. Also, there were too few diagnostic tests, too few hospitals, too few healthy doctors and nurses, and too few basic medical supplies, including face masks. 

News of the global face mask shortage was my first hint that something out of the ordinary was unfolding in China. I was on vacation in Thailand in late January when a friend who works in the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang province WeChatted me. “We’re going all out to fight against the epidemic,” she wrote, “There’s a shortage of disposable face masks, protective clothing and goggles. Could you help?”

She’d never before asked me for such a favor (even though we’d worked together for years to help set up a memorial hall to U.S. aviators in World War II China). By early February, face masks were scarce in many countries, including Thailand. I shared her request with a U.S. nonprofit organization, the Children of the Doolittle Raiders, which donated about $8,000 worth of funds and supplies in late February. 

Back in Beijing, where I live and work, Chinese returning to the city after their Lunar New Year vacations were being told to self-quarantine at home for 14 days. Due to lucky timing, however, I returned to Beijing at a moment that allowed me to experience a very relaxed sort of quarantine. As a U.S. passport-holder (and with relatively few infections in the United States at that time), I was told by a friend that foreigners were exempt from Beijing’s quarantine requirements—because the focus was on local Chinese. 

Perhaps Beijing didn’t need anything more than the honor system—especially when it’s augmented by omnipresent closed-circuit TV cameras, facial recognition, cellphone GPS location services and other Big Brother tech aids. 

Encouraged, I flew to Beijing on Feb. 13 and registered my presence on a mobile phone app. (Later, I discovered my friend was wrong about the exemption, and today most travelers returning to Beijing from abroad are being submitted to mandatory quarantine in a government facility for 14 days, at their own expense.) Signs were everywhere warning me to avoid crowds, wash my hands, monitor my temperature, and wear a face mask in public at all times. 

Perhaps Beijing didn’t need anything more than the honor system—especially when it’s augmented by omnipresent closed-circuit TV cameras, facial recognition, cellphone GPS location services and other Big Brother tech aids.  That was about it, except for armies of temperature-takers at compound gates, entrances to open-air malls, the Apple store, even public parks. 

My husband and I wanted to attend a funeral in D.C. in April, so we decided to fly to the United States early just in case flight cancellations and ever-tighter U.S. entry requirements made it difficult later on. After landing in the United States, we filled out forms, submitted to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention temperature checks, then headed into self-administered quarantine in D.C. overseen by the D.C. Department of Health. Unexpectedly, the department actually followed up with a friendly phone call, and then an email. We got a checklist and instructions on what to do if we began to feel ill. 

I emailed back to ask where I could buy face masks, since I couldn’t find any for sale. The prompt response acknowledged there indeed was a face mask shortage and said: “there should be no need for an abundance of face masks … so long as you’re practicing social distancing and following the self-isolation guidelines and remain asymptomatic.” So much for Beijing rules. We set aside our masks and followed the U.S. guidelines closely. On March 12, the health department officially notified us by email that our quarantine was over. 

We enjoyed what seemed like a nanosecond of normality, dining out and strolling under a canopy of magnolia and cherry blossoms in D.C. But the markets had been volatile for days, and at one point the turmoil rattled U.S. President Donald Trump out of a prolonged state of denial. For weeks, he’d been making cavalier reassurances: “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” He declared that the coronavirus was just like the flu, that infected people could safely continue to work, and that one day (“looks like by April”) it would “miraculously” disappear. (Back then the Dow Jones was at 29,276.) Much of what he said was not supported by scientific evidence. 

In fact, both presidents Xi and Trump were criticized early on for not asserting greater leadership as their nations hurtled into the jaws of the pandemic. Initially Xi—who normally dominates headlines and the top slot on television news—didn’t appear in domestic media for about a week. In Trump’s case, investors became more and more alarmed by the disconnect between his dismissive statements versus science-based fact. During several televised appearances, Trump seemed to be intellectually AWOL as his blithe statements clashed with the sober assessments made by scientific advisors standing right beside him. 

Eventually, each leader began to engage. Xi had appeared in public in a Beijing neighborhood wearing a face mask and was quoted as declaring a “people’s war” against the “demon” virus. In Trump’s case, he announced from the Oval Office on March 11 tough new travel restrictions on most travelers entering the U.S. from Europe. (Then, the Dow was at 23,553.) On Friday the 13th, the president declared a national emergency. Four days later, he proposed to Congress a trillion-dollar economic response package to assist businesses shell-shocked by the administration’s new “social distancing” guidelines. (The Dow had fallen to 21,237.)

As I watched endless hours of TV in quarantine, one thing became clear. The biggest difference between Beijing and DC is the way policy fumbles, internal disagreement, and bureaucratic frictions played out in full view in the U.S.  During a Friday press conference, the U.S. president’s upbeat tone—and his naively optimistic characterization of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine’s possible use against COVID-19—differed significantly from that of his top scientific advisor, Anthony Fauci. Such things don’t happen with Xi. For one, he doesn’t do press briefings. Two, his style and personality are opaque even by the minimal standards set by predecessors Three, Chinese who contradict the party line get punished. In China ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was detained by cops because tried to warn people about a nasty new coronavirus on the loose in Wuhan;  no one knows what other retaliation he might have encountered because he died from COVID-19.

Now, I and most people in D.C., it seems, are heading into a quasi-quarantine similar to what I’d experienced in Beijing, sans face masks and Big Brother. A long-scheduled dinner party became an online Zoom meeting instead. Along the oddly quiet streets near Dupont Circle, restaurants are shuttering one by one. Pizza Paradiso was still open—offering takeout only—but no one knew how long it could continue. I had an eerie flashback to China’s deserted capital in February. It was Contagion meets Groundhog Day.

There may be yet more darkness ahead. Leaders in both China and the United States are looking for someone to blame for the severe economic and societal damage being wrought by COVID-19. Both are evoking wartime analogies. Trump has called the pandemic America’s “invisible enemy” and has defended his use of the term “Chinese virus,” with much self-congratulation focused on his early decision to restrict travel from China to the United States. The Chinese foreign ministry has called Trump racist for using the term. 

Both governments seem to be finding the path of least resistance toward finding that a convenient scapegoat is xenophobia. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian—a firebrand diplomat recently promoted for having shown a Trump-like prowess for hyperbole on Twitter—tweeted that it might have been the U.S. Army that brought the coronavirus to China, speculating that 300 athletes from the American military introduced the coronavirus while participating in sports competitions in Wuhan last October. 

In other words, the urgent global pandemic crisis has inflamed a slower-burning crisis in Sino-U.S. relations as well. Global health emergencies don’t always sabotage multilateralism and global coordination. During the Ebola outbreak, Chinese officials cooperated closely with counterparts from the United States and other countries. China’s 2003-2004 SARS epidemic, and an international outcry over Beijing’s attempted coverup, ultimately helped improve China’s public health surveillance and international liaison. 

The urgent global pandemic crisis has inflamed a slower-burning crisis in Sino-U.S. relations as well.

But this time Beijing has wasted little time on defensively trying to hide its Wuhan missteps. The regime has already pounced on the opportunity to cast blame overseas. “It’s astounding how quickly and brazenly they’ve been able to go on the offensive, after the number of new cases began to decrease,” said Richard McGregor, a China specialist with the Lowy Institute in Australia who mentioned that a friend in China was “sending face masks to me here from China because we don’t have any.”

That comment about face masks underscored how the virus wars have come full circle. After experiencing its own catastrophic shortage of medical supplies in February, China ramped up production hugely. Now the face masks that were nowhere to be seen in China, back when I was asked to find some in Thailand, are back on the market in China again. Knowing I was in the United States, several Chinese friends have WeChatted me recently to ask how I was faring and if I needed any supplies. “I hear there’s a lack of face masks and gloves in the States,” wrote one, “If you need masks, I can help.” 

After six weeks of unsuccessfully trying to buy face masks in Thailand, China, and now in the United States, I could use some extra masks. Scientific studies project the pandemic threat to the United States might linger for as long as 12 or 18 more months. Even countries that seem to be recovering from the virus may still be hit by a second wave of infection. Both the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic and the SARS outbreak peaked more than one time.    

There’s no telling how long I’ll be here. The funeral for which I originally came to D.C. has been postponed. I don’t much like the idea of spending 14 days in mandatory quarantine at a Chinese hotel, at my own expense—which is the fate awaiting me if I return to Beijing now. I’m tempted to take up my friend’s offer of face masks. You never know how many more quarantines I’ll have to undergo in coming weeks or months—nor what rules will apply if and when I do.

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.