Our plane had just taken off from Shanghai, a city of gleaming skyscrapers, home to 25 million people who are slowly being exhausted by China’s relentless zero-Covid regime.
As she approached my row, the stewardess addressed me with the same concerned tone. You dated that little guy, I see, she said, looking at my rescue dog, the President, asleep in his carrying case under the seat in front of me. How did you do ? And how are you feeling?” she asked.
At present, expats wishing to flee Shanghai generally need consular assistance, approval from community leaders to obtain additional non-government Covid tests, a registered driver to take them to the airport and a ticket on a rare flight (and it’s even harder to find with a pet).
Most importantly, people who leave must promise their community leaders that once they walk through the doors, they won’t be coming back.
Deserted roads lead to an empty airport
After 50 days of being locked indoors, I could feel my neighbors watching me from their homes as I left my apartment. They probably assumed that I was either bused to a government quarantine center like people who tested positive, or found a quick escape route like other expats trying to get out.
In fact, my trip had been planned for several months, long before the start of the maddening confinement. After covering the initial outbreak in Wuhan in January 2020, I stayed in China as it cut itself off from the rest of the world. But after more than two and a half years away from my close-knit Cuban-American family, I needed to come back.
The journey between Xuhui district in central Shanghai and Pudong International Airport east of downtown was nothing like my memories. Almost desolate sidewalks were lined with duct tape, and most shops and restaurants were closed, their shutters down and their doors secured with chains and locks.
The few people on the streets were mostly dressed in hazmat suits, including police. Checkpoints lined the route to the airport, and when my driver was stopped, officers spent several minutes inspecting our documents: flight confirmation emails, negative Covid tests, even a letter from the embassy. the United States.
As we pulled up outside the terminal I realized there were no other cars or passengers in sight – and for a fleeting second I was afraid my flight had been canceled .
A different country
The China I am leaving bears little resemblance to the one that welcomed me nearly three years ago, but it reminds me of the first great story I told here.
Months after arriving, my team was dispatched to Wuhan in central China after news of a mysterious illness began to spread. It was January 21, 2020, and within days the city entered an unprecedented citywide lockdown – the first of many around the world.
We, along with many others, rushed out, but realizing we could be potentially exposed, decided to self-isolate in a hotel for 14 days, before quarantine became mandatory.
In those early days, a brief window of unfiltered truth opened before Chinese censors closed it. Meanwhile, we spoke with relatives of the victims, who risked their freedom to express their anger at government officials who they believe mishandled and covered up the initial outbreak.
China was one of the first countries to close its borders, build field hospitals, roll out mass testing to millions of people and create a sophisticated contact tracing system to track and contain cases – providing a model for other countries as they fought their own. epidemics.
Reporting in China was notoriously difficult even before Covid, but pandemic restrictions meant that every assignment came with the threat of being trapped in an instant lockdown or forced into quarantine.
China’s battle against Covid has coincided with deteriorating international relations, particularly its ties with the United States. American journalists, like me, were slapped with heavy visa restrictions – visa periods were shorter and multiple-entry access was removed. So rather than risk being kicked out of China, many of us stayed.
Take off from containment
Stepping into the airport’s eerily quiet Terminal 2 was like stepping into the next level of a video game – a moment of relief overshadowed by anxiety that some sort of unexpected obstacle might lead me back to my starting point. departure.
The departure board showed only two destinations: Hong Kong and my destination, Amsterdam.
No shops or restaurants were open, even the vending machines had stopped working. In the most remote corners of the huge terminal building, departing travelers had left behind sleeping bags and heaps of garbage. Some were still there, waiting for what I had – a flight.
At the check-in counter, passengers left queues of trolleys full of luggage as they waited hours for attendants to appear in white coveralls to check them in.
As I passed through customs and security, the sun was setting over the dimly lit terminal. Other passengers, mostly expats, huddled nearby, waiting to board, sharing similar stories.
“We are leaving after 5 years,” said one woman. “We’ve been here 7 (years),” another passenger replied, pointing to another couple, “They’ve been living here for about a decade.”
The people I spoke with seemed to have come to the same conclusion: the time they had invested in the Chinese financial hub no longer mattered. It was time to retire, to cut his losses.
From the window I could see our plane at the gate and watched the hazmat ground crew spray themselves with disinfectant, disinfecting themselves from head to sole of their shoes after loading the last of our luggage.
When I finally settled into my seat — with entire empty rows around me — weeks of pent-up adrenaline, anxiety and stress began to subside. For perhaps the first time since the outbreak began in March, I felt a sense of relief and certainty, albeit tinged with survivor’s guilt as the plane took off.
Flight attendants were apparently fascinated by each passenger’s “escape story” and remarked that they had never had a flight with so many grateful people on board.
Two of them approached my seat as we reached cruising altitude. One of them said, “You have all had long weeks, why don’t you rest. We’ll take you home soon.
The other nodded in agreement, then pointed to his face mask and said, “Oh, and just so you don’t get too shocked, once we land you hardly notice anyone wearing them. .”
“You are about to enter a whole new world.”