Devika Koppikar, the former press secretary for the late Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, is chronicling her experience being quarantined in China due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).  As a precaution, the local authorities are requiring anyone who traveled out of and back to China to stay in their home for 14 days, the incubation period for COVID-19’s manifestation.

This is her account of the quarantine.

For the past four years, I have been living in China, where I work as a teacher for an American-focused high school program for Chinese students. I live in Wuxi (not to be confused with Wuhan), a city 87 miles west of Shanghai.  It’s been both rewarding and challenging to wade through a new culture. One of the challenges has been to confront the blatant racism lodged into the minds of the older generation, while the rewards have been to nurture the open-mindedness of the teenagers entering the global economy.

Though we follow an American curriculum, we work around the Chinese calendar, which gives us three weeks off for Chinese New Year (end of January/early February).  During this time, I explore various parts of Asia. This year, I traveled to Australia and New Zealand. 

Devika Koppikar, the former press secretary for the late Congressman Elijah E. Cummings. (Courtesy Photo)

When I left for vacation on January 20, the COVID-19 had begun to spread, but was mostly contained to Wuhan, a city about 500 miles from where I live.  But as days went by, I learned of U.S.-government chartered flights home and saw many of my American friends fly back home. Slowly, every day presented a different story.  Many countries cancelled flights to China and some countries, like the Philippines, prevented its citizens from traveling there. The U.S. imposed similar recommendations, though not mandatory.

I was in Australia when I got the notice that my school would reopen Feb. 17, a week later than originally scheduled.  Great, I’ll extend my vacation, I thought. Then, we learned that upon our return, all people, Chinese and foreigners, must undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine where our doors would be sealed shut and we’d be forbidden from stepping outside.  To adjust to the new requirements, the school then recommended we return as soon as possible.

But the idea of staying in my apartment with the door sealed gave me chills. Plus, several other American friends were staying away claiming it’s best not to trust the school or our host country’s government.

“It’s dangerous there and they’re likely underreporting the number of cases,” my friend Phil, a young Caucasian man, said.

But then I spoke to another friend, Rita, also a person of color, who had begun her 14-day quarantine.  

“It sounds worse than it actually is,” she said.  “Although they seal your door shut, you have electricity, water, heat, telephone and the Internet.  Your apartment’s neighborhood committee brings you groceries and supplies as needed. So, besides cabin fever, it’s not bad.”

I also spoke to several people on the ground in Wuxi, both Chinese and American, who said that the city is safe and strong precautions have been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.  Public transportation has been halted and store owners must always wear masks. Apartment communities carefully monitor who comes and goes into the apartment, allowing only official residents to enter.  

It felt comfortable enough.  But I wanted to thoroughly examine my options: 

  • Overburden my relatives in Australia by staying indefinitely;
  • Stay in a hotel in Australia and rack up hotel bills;
  • Go back to the States and get stuck; or, 
  • Go back to China, where some of my friends believe the situation is worse than described, while others deem it safe. 

My Qantas flight from Sydney to Shanghai was still running as planned on Feb. 7, but all flights between Australia and China would be suspended from Feb. 9 to March 29.  As my school expected to re-open on February 17, I wanted to try to do my best to return as soon as possible. Even if I was in quarantine, I’d be close enough to get my teaching materials.  I finally decided it was best to return to China. My decision was partially based on logistics, but on a deeper level, it was based on what many people of color contemplated: how racism would play into this crisis.  

My school had not only recommended we return as soon as possible, but also provided documentation to allow us to return under the circumstances.  Many foreigners who left for vacation were not allowed back in.

If I didn’t return, I was afraid my pay would be docked, or my contract could be terminated. Although I work for a reputable company known for its commitment to diversity, I don’t trust racism. Ironically, I trust the containment of COVID-19 more than I trust the containment of racism. I’m already hearing from other expat friends (many who are people of color) that their contracts got terminated amidst this virus, while their white counterparts were given online working options.  As such, I had to give my job my full commitment and give them zero reasons to doubt my ability to fulfill my duties. I understand my Caucasian friends staying out of China until the virus is fully contained, but they have better negotiation clout. I don’t have that luxury. As a person of color, I must meet a higher bar. I’m trusted less, blamed more and must work harder to prove my competence.  

So, at approximately 11 a.m. local time, I boarded the plane from Sydney to Shanghai. I was teary-eyed as I feared what was coming, but this was the right thing to do.

February 7, 2020, 11 p.m.:

I arrived safely and without much fanfare to Shanghai.  I put on a mask, as I heard it was required, but no one says anything. Getting through customs was easy as so few people were traveling.  The car service my school arranged picks me up and I’d be home within an hour, I guess, especially since the streets are clear. Very few people are traveling with the crisis.  

I make it through many checkpoints as I entered several cities on the way home. They put a thermometer on my forehead and clear me to go through.

When I get to my host city, I have one more checkpoint to get through. “It will just be 10 minutes,” my office coordinator, Bella, says.  I was glad because I need to go to the bathroom but will wait until I get home. 

I show them my documentation, passport, visa and residence permit (everyone living in China must have a residence permit clearing them to live in a certain place).  

Then I wait.  And wait and wait.

It’s 12:30 a.m. and my driver and I are stuck at the checkpoint.

I get a call from Bella.  “Apparently, the driver cannot get through because he does not have the documentation to drive through the city,” she said. “But you’re okay.”

I panic.  At one point, I am told that I might have to go into isolation right there at the checkpoint.

No, I want to go home!  Ugh. Maybe I should have not come back, as some friends suggested. Maybe the driver can drop me back to Shanghai and I’ll stay there at a hotel or go home to the States.

I fear I’ll be here all night, so I ask to go to the bathroom and must go in a Porta Potty.  

Eww. Well, beggars can’t be choosers.  I’ll do what I must. 

I’m frustrated and I pray.  Somehow, there’s got to be a better way.  I came this far.

Then it happens:  the driver is cleared, and we head to my apartment, where at the gate I have my temperature checked once again.  The guards at first give the driver a hard time about driving me back to my building,

I don’t want to carry my luggage a quarter mile in the cold in the middle of the night!

But they let him in! 

I get home and all is well in my apartment.  I shut the door, wash up a bit and sleep.

The quarantine begins in the morning.

February 8, 2020, 10 a.m.

I get a call from Bella and she says the apartment committee (akin to a homeowners’ association, so I’ll call it an HOA) will come to my apartment in about an hour and seal my door. 

I should let her know if I want any groceries and such now. I make my list, scrambling as I’ve just returned from vacation.

Technically, I can go outside now, but don’t as I don’t know if any surveillance is being conducted.

The reality of the quarantine hasn’t hit me yet. I’ll just pretend it’s like the weekend and I’m in my apartment doing my normal things.

The HOA arrives and gives me my groceries. They brought the wrong yogurt!  I don’t want this liquid fermented milk stuff. But what can I do?

Then, with a tape, they seal my door.  If I break the seal, I will go another location for isolation. Yikes!

But it’s okay.  I’ll be okay.

It could be worse.  I think of the people who actually have the COVD-19 and could not protect themselves, the refugees of the world who flee their homes for the unknown, those innocently imprisoned and historical atrocities like the Holocaust and slavery.

At least I’m in my home, warm, comfortable and well-fed.  I can open my windows and see sunshine. I can get on the phone and talk to the friends. I can get online and watch old reruns. This will be done in 14 days.  

This is a new challenge and it too shall pass!  Jiayou (Jeye-yo), which in Chinese means, “let’s keep at it.”