In this post from WeChat public account 兽楼处, a man gives a first-person account of his family’s experience in quarantine following a potential COVID exposure at a shopping mall in Beijing. In addition to describing the food, surroundings, and daily rhythms of a quarantine center, the article also touches on confusion about quarantine rules, inconsistent enforcement, and the time-honored bureaucratic practice of passing the buck. The piece features such now-familiar terms as “Health Kit,” “red code,” and “spatial-temporal proximity,” as well as the ubiquitous dabai (“Big Whites,” white-suited pandemic personnel), harried hotline workers, and Beijingers caught up in a Kafkaesque web of conflicting regulations and information.
In the middle of the night, my phone started buzzing on my bedside table. I answered, blearily. It was an unfamiliar number, starting with 198-. On the other end was a man who rapidly read off my name and ID number.
“Is that you?” he asked. I mumbled yes without thinking about it. “This is ___ from Tongzhou District,” he said. “You were at the We-Life Shopping Center on June 10, correct? And you’re still living in the ___ residential compound in Tongzhou?”
I moved away from Tongzhou years ago, I said, but yes, I’d taken my daughter to We-Life for a meal and a movie on the third floor.
The man said there had been a confirmed case [of COVID-19] at the We-Life branch of the Nanjing Impressions restaurant. “Have you done a nucleic acid test in the last two days?” He asked. “How many vaccinations have you had? Where are you currently residing? Are you currently feeling anything out of the ordinary?”
That woke me up a bit. I told him my current address in Chaoyang district, and that I had received three vaccinations, and that I’d taken four nucleic acid tests over the past five days, with the most recent one at 7:00 p.m. the previous night. “You should be getting a notification in your Health Kit tomorrow,” he said, and hung up.
I turned on the bedside lamp and checked my phone. It was 1:29 a.m. When I woke up the next morning, I checked my incoming calls, remembering the late-night phone call. It hadn’t been a dream.
In my Health Kit app there was a notification saying that any individuals who had visited We-Life Shopping Center on or after June 7 should shelter in place and contact their community authorities immediately.
As I called the community authorities, the evening in question was still clear in my mind: I had come home at 7:00 and taken my daughter out for a simple birthday celebration, just dinner and a movie. I had even gone out of my way to pick a mall that wouldn’t be too crowded—the We-Life Shopping Center by Ciyunsi Bridge.
We arrived at We-Life at 7:30. Our first stop was the Burger King on the first floor, then up to the Nanjing Impressions on the second floor, where we scarfed down two bowls of duck’s blood vermicelli soup, and then to the third floor to catch the 8:00 showing of “Jurassic World: Dominion.”
As we waited for the elevator after the movie, my daughter said, “This is the first time in more than a month we got to go out to eat and see a movie, Dad. It’s so nice.”
A Chaoyang District contact tracer would later tell me someone at the mall that day had tested positive for COVID, putting us in the same place at the same time, i.e. “spatial-temporal proximity.”
A week later, in our room at the Changping centralized quarantine site, my daughter told me it had been an unforgettable birthday.
In early April, I was still feeling sorry for all the Shanghaiers who couldn’t manage to buy groceries during that city’s “temporary slowdown,” and sympathizing with those middle-aged men who wouldn’t ask for help unless they had nowhere else to turn.
Imagine my surprise when, not long afterward, I myself became the lucky winner of a quarantine vacation—and not just once.
On the afternoon of April 25, a co-worker sent an update to our WeChat group saying a COVID case had been found in a residential compound in the Chaoyang district of Beijing. It turned out to be the compound where I lived—in the building next to mine.
I called the property management office. They said, “Your building has been sealed off.”
This wasn’t as bad as a full lockdown. Seven days of in-home quarantine, with occasional yard breaks inside the designated areas, which the compound had fenced in with blue barriers.
The worst of it was my daughter not being able to go to school. Like me, she started following the press conferences, tuning in at 4:00 every afternoon to watch [Beijing CDC deputy director Pang] Xinghuo and [deputy head of the Chaoyang District government Yang] Beibei.
That week went by very slowly indeed. The afternoon we got out, one neighbor livestreamed video to our WeChat group of the property management company dismantling the blue barriers. One neighbor said, “Free at last! Even the traffic noise doesn’t feel like noise pollution.”
Things may have eased up for our compound, but things were getting more serious outside. A lot of places were under full lockdown for 14 days.
On May 1, eating out became a thing of the past, malls closed their doors, and many bus and subway lines were shut down. My office got locked down, too.
When we went out, it was just to get our throats swabbed, and maybe pick up groceries while we were at it.
On the evening of May 6, I rode a bike-share to buy groceries, and took a quick spin near the office. It had just rained, and as I pedaled through empty streets and past ranks of skyscrapers, the vast stillness of Guomao seemed otherworldly.
The skyscrapers and streets, washed clean by the rain, were nearly deserted.
On May 28, I asked the property management for our office why we were sealed off for a month if we weren’t in an at-risk area. “We don’t know what the rules are either,” they groused. “We’re going to raise it with the community authorities tomorrow.”
As experience bears out, you’ve got to fight for your rights. The next day, the person at property management told me they’d just had a meeting with community authorities and would be resuming regular operations the very next day. He also asked, “Do you think you could pay your facilities fees up front? We’re having a hard time making payroll.”
Beijing began gradually reopening public spaces at the start of June. Dine-in resumed, too. We went to We-Life that Friday.
The morning of June 15, I reported my visit to We-Life to the community authorities, who told me to begin isolating at home immediately. An hour later, sensors had been installed on our apartment door, and our Health Kit codes had gone from green to yellow, with the following words at the top of the screen: “In-Home Monitoring.”
That day, I got calls from community authorities and public health authorities for every place in Beijing I’d ever lived in: Tongzhou, Chaoyang, Haidian, and even some places whose addresses I could hardly remember, all asking more or less the same contact-tracing questions. I gave them the same answers again and again.
The phone woke me up again after midnight. “I’m already quarantining,” I told the caller. “I’ve answered the same questions time and again—do you not see that in your system?
“Sorry,” the man said. “We don’t see that here.”
I had 18 missed calls when I woke up at 7:00 the next morning. Most of them had come in at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.
They sure were putting in long hours.
Just then, another call came in from a community worker. “Everyone in your household has to transfer to the Changping centralized quarantine facility,” they informed me. “You’ll be picked up at 9:00. Pack your things.”
More than an hour later, after a few false turns on a road in Changping, we finally arrived at a quarantine facility consisting of seven or eight apartment buildings. The buildings looked new, but there were weeds sprouting from the pavements and ground floor shops.
The white-suited dabai intake worker said we’d be quarantined there for seven days, and after we got out, we’d have to quarantine at home for another seven days.
The room was about 20 square meters (215 square feet), and equipped with a small table, a sofa, and a 1.5-meter-wide (five-foot-wide) plank bed with a thin mattress on it. The walls looked like they’d been recently painted, and a Xiaomi TV set hung on one of them.
There were long hairs on the bed, sofa, and floor. Noting the very strong smell, I asked if the room had been recently renovated. The dabai told me the apartments had been built seven or eight years ago, but had been vacant ever since.
We’d barely closed the door behind him when another dabai came knocking to register us and pass out information packets. There was a quarantine risk agreement that stipulated 14 days of centralized quarantine, followed by seven additional days of home quarantine.
I pointed out to the dabai that the number of days mentioned on the document was different from what we’d been told when we registered. I asked what the quarantine rules were for people like us, who had had “spatial-temporal proximity” to a positive case, but no direct contact. They said they didn’t know, and told me to call the information hotline.
I called the hotline. They told me to ask whoever I’d talked to at registration.
I asked a community worker on WeChat what the rules for centralized quarantine were. They said it would be up to the quarantine hotel, and that going by prior experience, it would likely be 14 days of centralized quarantine. Apparently there are no standard rules, just “prior experience.”
Dinner the first night was a bowl of Baixiang instant noodles, a chicken sausage, and a marinated egg. The information hotline said they’d had more than 200 people arrive that day, and hadn’t been prepared for the influx.
My phone rang while I was eating my noodles: another contact-tracing call, this time from the community authorities in Haidian District. The caller asked my name, and where I was, and what I was doing.
I looked out the window at the gray sky, feeling like I’d been trapped in a flood.
It was a reasonably large residential compound, but it had no name on Baidu Maps.
The information hotline told me it was called the Haijingluo Medical Observation Site. Haijingluo is a village in Beijing’s Changping district, a few kilometers north of Tiantongyuan.
There’s a lot of unlicensed residential construction in Changping. In March 2010, the village of Haijingluo decided to use collectively-owned land to build rental housing. Representatives from the municipal government visited and granted approval for construction to begin, even before the village had submitted all of the paperwork.
Work started on the first phase of construction—1,800 housing units—at the end of that year, and was completed in October 2014, but due to problems with the paperwork, the apartments remained vacant for eight years.
Now, a residential compound that hadn’t even merited a name was brightly lit up at night.
On the morning of June 17, I got a call from the Chaoyang District medical workgroup. I immediately asked how many days we’d have to be quarantined.
The woman said that in seven days, if our nasal swabs and environmental samples came back negative, they’d call our community workers and have them come pick us up.
I asked how long we’d have to quarantine at home after that. She said she didn’t know, because it varied from community to community.
The quarantine site at Haijingluo was like university housing. There were a dozen-odd units on every floor, with a red plastic stool in front of each one. Workers would place our meals on these, then knock on our doors to let us know the food had arrived.
Every day, I could hear the knocking getting closer and closer. When it finally reached our door, my daughter would cheerfully announce, “Feeding time!” And then she’d put on her N95 and trot over to the door to get the food.
The meals improved greatly after the second day. There was milk at breakfast, and our boxed lunches and dinners started coming with fruit. The boxed meals were three meat, two veg, and the portions were large.
Time passed slowly there. After breakfast, my daughter used her iPad for online classes at the little table, and I lay on the bed to read, occasionally getting up to look out the window.
We were on the second floor, above a small enclosed garden. Our unit faced west, and in the evenings the setting sun was faintly visible behind the high-rises.
We did jumping jacks in the afternoon after my daughter’s classes. When it wasn’t raining, we would lie on our bellies next to the window and watch the sun go down.
After dinner, I’d stream a movie from my phone to the Xiaomi TV. At 10:00, my daughter would go to sleep, and I’d take out my laptop and get some work done at the table.
Centralized quarantine was a hundred times more isolating than home quarantine. With our white-suited “keepers” trundling back and forth outside, we felt like we were living in outer space.
My daughter woke up early one morning looking disconsolate. I asked what was wrong, and she said she’d been dreaming about eating crayfish.
At around 6:00 p.m. on June 23, after waiting all day for our nucleic acid test results, we learned we had tested negative.
The next day at noon, we finally caught our ride home. That was the first time I learned that 183 people who’d visited Nanjing Impressions were quarantined along with us.
Our driver told us he’d been taking people to quarantine centers for the last few days. The previous day, he’d driven an old woman who started complaining about the unfairness of it all as soon as she got in the vehicle: she’d only stood at the entrance of a steamed-bun stall in Dongcheng for 30 seconds, and now she was being shipped off to quarantine. “It’s all about health codes nowadays,” said the driver.
And in some places, the codes can be manipulated. In Henan, for example, you won’t be allowed to buy high-speed rail tickets if you can’t pay the banks what you owe them—but if the banks can’t pay you what they owe you, you won’t even be able to leave your own home.
Community and property management workers were waiting for us at the gate of our compound.
They escorted us to our door, and then pasted up a red paper seal that read, “Attention neighbors: For the sake of everyone’s health, we will begin medical home quarantine on June 24, to conclude July 1.”
I had already been quarantined for ten days: home quarantine on June 15, followed by centralized quarantine from June 16 to June 24. Now, according to this announcement, I wouldn’t be getting out until July 2.
At that point, it had been 22 days since I went to We-Life. According to China’s CDC, Omicron has an average incubation period of two to four days, and virtually all positive test results are detected within seven days.
People entering the country only have to do seven days of hotel quarantine and seven days of home quarantine, I told the community worker, and I wasn’t even a close contact. Wasn’t this going a bit overboard? He said he’d let us out early if it were up to him, but he had to enforce the policies the subdistrict authorities handed down.
Home quarantine was a lot more comfortable than centralized quarantine. But my daughter was getting antsy: her homeroom teacher had announced that finals would be the week after next, and she’d be stuck under quarantine until next Friday.
A friend who lived near We-Life couldn’t believe that I was still under quarantine, or that I had to quarantine for another seven days at home.
He said their residential compound had been locked down without warning for seven days, but after residents called the 12345 hotline to complain, the lockdown was lifted just four days later. For that reason, I started calling 12345 and describing my own experience.
The person who answered the hotline listened patiently and passed my questions along to the subdistrict authorities, who passed them along to the community authorities, who passed them back to the subdistrict, and so on. Again and again, I was told by the community, “All we can do is carry out the policies the subdistrict hands down to us.”
On the 25th, the hotline’s subdistrict office called me back and asked what I wanted.
I said I wanted the same two things I always had: first, I wanted to know what the quarantine rules were; second, I wanted them to stop passing the buck to the community authorities, who were too busy and lacked the authority to do anything.
An hour later, I got a call from a contract tracer for Chaoyang District. She said she was looking at my case in their system and noticed that it was just a situation of “spatial-temporal proximity” to a positive case [i.e. not a direct contact]. There was a new policy for cases like ours: 14 days of home quarantine were sufficient.
She said to have the community worker call her.
He did so right away. Ten minutes later, he sent me a big thumbs-up emoji on WeChat, along with the news that the new rules would apply to my quarantine. “You can get out two days early,” he said, adding, “This is the first time anyone from our complex has gotten results from the higher-ups. You’ve sure got some pull.”
I didn’t have any pull. All I had was one question: “What exactly are the rules?”
Around noon on June 29, someone came to my apartment from the community hospital to administer my final nucleic acid test. The results came back at 9:40 that night, and I forwarded them to the community authorities.
At 12:20 a.m. on June 30, my yellow code turned green.
I removed the red paper seal from our door, placed it in a drawer, and posted an update on WeChat. A friend posted a comment asking why I’d had to quarantine for so long—had I gone somewhere I oughtn’t?
All I did was take my daughter to the mall for a birthday meal and a movie, I answered.
Two days before my quarantine ended, the State Council issued the ninth revision to its COVID control measures: the quarantine period for close contacts of positive cases and individuals entering P.R.C. territory was reduced to seven days of centralized quarantine and three days of home quarantine. For close contacts of close contacts, it was reduced to seven days of home quarantine.
Under these new rules, I might have only had to stay at home for seven days.
After leaving the Haijingluo Medical Observation Site, I looked up the name of the village.
Haijing are gyrfalcons—lords of the skies, hunting birds used by steppe peoples. How did a village in the middle of nowhere come to be called “Haijingluo?” [Luo means “to fall.”]
The story goes that at the end of the Yuan dynasty, there was a Mongol prince who enjoyed hunting on horseback. His hunts were a constant nuisance to the common folk, and on one of his hunts, a gyrfalcon he kept took to the air and refused to land, flying and flying until it dropped to the ground, dead. The prince was so heartbroken that he never hunted again.
Out of gratitude to the bird, the local folks dubbed the place where it fell “Haijingluo”—“Falcon’s Fall.” [Chinese]
Translation by Mick Barry.