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Welcome home! Now go straight to quarantine; or not

  • >> The New York Times
    Published: 2020-11-03 16:31:48 BdST

A traveller passes through Kong Kong Airport, March 17, 2020. The New York Times

What’s it like travelling during the coronavirus pandemic? It depends where you’re going. Epidemic prevention and control measures for international arrivals vary greatly around the world, as New York Times journalists found while travelling in recent months. The severity of outbreaks is similarly varied, but stricter quarantine policies tend to correspond with lower case numbers.


No Room For Error

Hong Kong is not messing around. Since March, travelling there has meant accepting a 14-day quarantine, a tracking bracelet and a coronavirus test.

The semi-autonomous Chinese territory is closed to almost everyone except residents, and a highly organised series of stations awaits arrivals at the airport. At the first one, health workers make sure travellers have filled out a health declaration form and downloaded the government’s StayHomeSafe app.

Next, the tracking bracelet is secured to your wrist. Then someone calls your phone to make sure the number on file is correct.

At another station you receive the quarantine order, along with an at-home test to be taken on Day 10 and a form for recording your temperature twice a day. Don’t have a thermometer? Here’s one for free.

Arriving passengers are sent for testing, where they stand in private cubicles and spit into specimen bottles. (“Make a ‘kruuua’ noise,” the instructions suggest.) Anyone who tests positive is sent to a hospital; their close contacts are quarantined.

Passengers who land in the morning have to wait at the airport all day for their test results. But since my flight arrived late, we were taken to a hotel for the night, where we each got a dinner box and an electronic key card good for one use only. After receiving a negative result the next day, we were allowed to check out.

Once at home or a hotel, quarantined residents open the phone app and walk around the perimeter to map its boundaries. The app may at any time ask you to scan the QR code on your bracelet to verify your location, and officials might conduct random checks by phone or in person. Violating the quarantine order can mean fines or imprisonment.

Those in quarantine are not permitted to go out for groceries or a walk or even to take out the garbage — you order everything online or ask friends for help. You just keep yourself busy inside your tiny Hong Kong apartment, counting down the days.

— JENNIFER JETT, Digital Editor


Burden of Proof

When I flew back to Tokyo from San Francisco in June, Japan’s borders were closed to travellers from more than 100 countries, so the only people arriving were a smattering of Japanese citizens or foreign residents with special exemptions to leave and return after a family emergency — in my case, the death of my father.

The flight had been relatively empty, but to maintain social distancing, flight attendants asked passengers to disembark in small groups. We filled out some forms, had our temperatures taken and shuffled into a waiting area before being called into cubicles for our nasal swab tests.

Clearing customs took nearly an hour while officials checked my documents, including my father’s death certificate and a letter from the funeral home director. They asked me to prove our family relationship, so I frantically texted my husband to send me a digital copy of my birth certificate.

After I retrieved my luggage, I was escorted to an unused baggage hall where cardboard cubicles had been set up for arriving passengers to wait to be picked up. I would be required to quarantine at home for 14 days and had to attest that I would not use public transit to get back to my family’s apartment in central Tokyo. The cubicles contained makeshift cardboard beds for those forced to wait overnight. When my ride arrived, the escort walked me to the curb to confirm that I was not getting into a taxi, which was considered a form of prohibited public transit.

At home, my family had set up an isolation chamber in the bedroom with my desk and our exercise bike nestled by the window. It was a week before I received a call from a local public health centre confirming that I was staying inside. The clerk was about to hang up when I asked her about my test results. “Oh, yes,” she said. “You’re negative.”

— MOTOKO RICH, Tokyo Bureau Chief


A Normal Journey

Before I left Hong Kong for London, where a second wave of infections is building, I had to fill out a form telling the British government that I hadn’t travelled anywhere else in the previous 14 days. I assumed this was just the beginning of what would be a highly unusual travel experience.

Wrong. That was just about the last time the virus was a factor in my trip, aside from wearing a mask on the flight and being extra careful about opening the lavatory door with a paper towel.

There were no forms to be filled out upon arrival at Heathrow Airport. No temperature checks, no tests, no instructions — I just waltzed through customs and the baggage claim and looked for the taxi stand, just as with any other voyage. The only apparent restriction was requiring passengers older than 11 to wear masks inside the terminals.

The baffling convenience prepared me for life in London, where mask use is much more sporadic than in Hong Kong. I found myself in an unimaginable situation: wishing my airport experience had been a little more complicated.



Hard to Get Home

Australia has restricted the number of international travellers who can arrive each day, so my first impression on arriving at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport was one of eerie emptiness. I counted myself lucky not to be among the many Australians stranded abroad after their tickets were suddenly cancelled by airlines enforcing the cap on arrivals.

Passengers shuffled off the plane, joking among ourselves about where we would spend the next two weeks. Australia requires travellers to quarantine for 14 days in government-assigned hotels, which could mean a grim room near the airport or a five-star room overlooking Sydney Harbour.

After living through the pandemic in China, where people wore masks as a matter of course, it was unnerving for me to see Sydney airport workers without masks, which are not compulsory in most parts of Australia. Would we be safe? Would they be safe? Masked medical workers took our details and temperatures, rattling off a series of questions: Any fever, coughing, other possible signs of the virus?

We passed through immigration and picked up our luggage. Still no hints of where we were being sent. Police officers pointed us to lines of waiting buses; families on one bus, solo travellers on another. We climbed aboard, and after some prodding the driver told us that we wouldn’t know our hotel until we arrived — authorities didn’t want us phoning our families to meet us there and risk infections.

A stroke of good fortune: The bus stopped in front of a luxury hotel overlooking Hyde Park in the city centre. But the soldiers chaperoning us to our rooms were a reminder that this was no holiday. I had enough experience with quarantine already this year — three stretches locked in hotel rooms in Beijing, Hong Kong and once before in Sydney — to know how to cope: keep busy with work, stick to a routine, exercise.

Still, the days began to drag. I waited each day for the tap on the door at meal times.

— CHRIS BUCKLEY, Chief China Correspondent


A Matter of Trust

South Korea certainly takes its virus control measures seriously — though they are not airtight.

After arriving at Incheon Airport, we were guided through a series of checkpoints, including one where we were asked to download an app on which we were to record any symptoms for the next 14 days. Agents made us show that we had downloaded the app before allowing us to proceed to the baggage area.

Most foreign nationals arriving in South Korea have to quarantine for 14 days in a designated facility, sometimes with angry protesters banging drums outside. But I had an exemption for work reasons, and my family was allowed to serve their quarantine in a hotel.

In the airport, an employee gave my wife the address of the government health office closest to our hotel, and directed her and our children to one of the specially designated “disinfection taxis” that transport new arrivals in the country.

After arriving at their hotel, my wife and children discovered the biggest hole in South Korea’s system. They were allowed to walk, unaccompanied, to the local health office for their coronavirus tests. They resisted the urge to dash into a convenience store for chocolate milk.

The next day, my wife got a call saying she and our children had tested negative. Every day for two weeks, she would attest to their well-being via the app. It was essentially the honour system.

At noon on Day 15 of quarantine, my family walked past the hotel’s hallway CCTV camera and out into the open air of Seoul, with no additional tests required.

— ANDY PARSONS, Assistant International Editor


Green Means Go

In September, the long-delayed Afghan peace talks were finally held in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The country requires international arrivals to quarantine for at least seven days, but an exception was made for the large Afghan delegation. Instead, negotiators and journalists traveling from Kabul were tested for the coronavirus multiple times before their flight.

All residents and visitors in Qatar are required to use an app called Ehteraz (Arabic for “precaution”) that shows their color-coded health status. Malls, offices, hotels and other public places won’t let people enter unless their status is green, or healthy. If your status is yellow, meaning you’re supposed to be in quarantine, or red, meaning you are infected, the app alerts others nearby.

After the opening ceremony at the Sheraton hotel, negotiators were allowed to move about Doha freely, while journalists were asked not to leave the hotel until seven days had passed. At that point we were tested again, and once the result came back negative, our status on the app turned green and we could go out in public.

— MUJIB MASHAL, South Asia Correspondent

c.2020 The New York Times Company