I quarantined in Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong. This is what I realized
Tokyo (CNN) – In the past 148 days, I’ve quarantined almost a third. I started in Beijing and have traveled to Hong Kong and now Tokyo.
At each destination, I went through a 14-day quarantine and performed several Covid-19 tests. Spending weeks without going outside now feels normal, as does the tedious and arduous process of traveling during the pandemic.
Asia has largely managed to suppress the virus through these mandatory quarantines, strict international travel restrictions, and aggressive contact tracing.
East and Southeast Asia account for about a third of the world’s population and a small fraction of the world’s Covid deaths. In comparison, the US and Europe make up about 15% of the world’s population and have about half of the world’s Covid deaths.
But even in East Asia, I’ve had vastly different quarantine experiences that give me a glimpse of how governments are trying to suppress outbreaks in their own way.
At the end of May, a friend invited me to visit Beijing’s Xinfadi Market, the largest wholesale food market in the city. It covers more than 250 acres and thousands of vendors sell fresh produce. She took me to the best sellers and traded hard on huge sacks of cherries, mangosteen, peaches and blueberries.
About two weeks after my visit, Beijing authorities announced an outbreak related to the wholesale market that marked the capital’s second wave of coronavirus. Shortly after that time, senior government officials also declared “war mode” to suppress the outbreak.
The authorities used geospatial data from people’s cell phones to send text messages to many visitors to the market asking them to quarantine. The restrictions varied depending on the neighborhood and building.
A city worker in protective clothing arrived at Wang’s home to be tested for the coronavirus.
Selina Wang / CNN
The friend who went to the market with me even had a sensor on her front door that notifies her building when she opened it.
I had to quarantine myself for at least 14 days and receive two Covid tests. My apartment management made sure that I never left my room, not even to enter rooms like the elevator or the lobby of my building.
Shortly before the start and end of my quarantine, a person in a protective suit appeared at my door to have a throat swab. Every time the next day, I got a slip of paper under my door with the results. I reported my temperature in my building twice a day.
Since the Beijing outbreak last summer, China has repeated this strategy several times to suppress local flare-ups: mass testing of millions of people within days, aggressive contact tracing and selective bans.So far, the strategy seems to have worked, so that life can largely return to normal. More than half a billion people traveled inland during the final Golden Week vacation. The country had reported no local broadcasts for several months prior to the recent outbreaks in several cities across China – albeit with a relatively small number of cases.
Upon landing in Hong Kong, Wang had to put on this bracelet.
Selina Wang / CNN
I traveled to Hong Kong in early August during the city’s “third wave”. Hong Kong’s borders are closed to virtually all foreigners, except for residents of the city and those coming from mainland China, Taiwan, or Macau.
Beijing Airport and the flight were almost completely empty. Upon landing in Hong Kong, there was a long process of signing forms, receiving instructions, and getting Covid tested. I stayed in a government arranged hotel for one night and left in the morning when my results were negative.
All travelers receive a wristband with a QR code at the airport. When I got to my quarantine location, I had to pair my bracelet with an app on my phone. Using data points such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, the technology sends an alert to the authorities when the wearer has left its quarantine location.
The system has raised privacy concerns in Hong Kong, where China introduced a comprehensive national security law this summer. However, Arthur Chan, the CEO of SagaDigits, a company that developed the technology, said the app did not know the actual location of the user.
“The technology detects changes in location instead of absolute whereabouts,” said Chan.
Wearers are not allowed to remove the bracelet for the entire quarantine period. Breaking the rules comes at a high price: Individuals who break quarantine rules can be fined up to $ 25,000 and incarcerated for six weeks.
Wearing the hospital-like bracelet for 14 days was a nuisance and a bit uncomfortable while showering and sleeping.
Wang was one of the few passengers at Hong Kong International Airport.
Selina Wang / CNN
Towards the end of my quarantine, I had to do another Covid test. The government gives people the option to have a friend drop off the Covid sample or to pay for an outside service to do the delivery.
Despite the common land border with mainland China, Hong Kong has kept infections relatively low while avoiding extreme lockdown measures. It has dealt with a few waves of the virus but has never reported more than 150 cases per day, and for the past month, infections reported daily have mostly stayed in the single digits.
As in mainland China, the combination of strict boundaries and quarantine enforcement – coupled with mask wear and social distancing – was effective.
I flew from Hong Kong to Tokyo at the end of October. Within 72 hours of the start, I had to prove a negative Covid-19 test signed by a doctor. After landing, passengers were instructed to conduct a spit test. I only waited an hour or two, got my negative results, and was able to move on through immigration and customs.
Similar to my experience at Hong Kong Airport, I had to enter numerous details about my travel history into an app and show the authorities at the airport a QR code. I also received a document instructing me to “wait 14 days in the specified location”, “avoid contact with other people as much as possible” and “not use public transport”.
Wang received this form when he arrived in Japan.
Selina Wang / CNN
Travelers must arrange their own private transportation from the airport and provide a location where they will be quarantined. There was no enforcement after that: no one checked me for temperature controls, no one made sure I stayed inside, and no additional Covid test was needed before leaving quarantine.
At the airport, one of the documents asked travelers to add the Japanese Ministry of Health to the line messaging app ubiquitous in Japan. I was never reminded to check out the app. When I opened the chat with the Department of Health, I got some automated yes-no questions and that was it.
Experts like Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Public Health at King’s College London, said Japan’s relatively relaxed approach to Covid-19 increases the risk of a significant resurgence, especially as the country relaxes its border restrictions.
Japan had one of the toughest travel restrictions in the world to fight the pandemic, banning entry to almost all tourists and business travelers from more than 150 countries. Only in the past few months has Japan started to slowly relax these rules.
“There is still community broadcast. Japan needs to step up testing, isolating and tracking contacts.” Shibuya said. “At the moment the system is not that strict.”
Although Japan never put a nationwide lockdown in place, it has managed to avoid an explosion in some cases.
Compared to China and Hong Kong, which have reported mostly single- or double-digit daily Covid cases for the past few months, Japan continues to report hundreds – and more than a thousand – new infections daily.
Shibuya said Japan avoided taking stronger measures, in part due to pressures to keep the economy alive ahead of the belated Olympics.
“They have to show that they can suppress transmission in a way that other Asian countries have done,” Shibuya said. “You have to stop it at the border and in the community – which Japan doesn’t.”
Japanese law does not allow the government to enforce bans.
Despite loose restrictions bringing Japan’s Covid restrictions closer to those of the US or Western Europe versus mainland China or Hong Kong, fewer than 2,000 total Covid-19 deaths have been reported in Japan.
Because “there is so much pressure in society to follow rules,” the government does not need legal enforcement, according to Satoshi Hori, professor at Juntendo University and an expert on infectious diseases. The mask-wearing culture and cleanliness also helped, he said.
Hori also attributes the relatively low numbers to Japan, which discovered early on that citizens should avoid the “Three Cs”: closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places, and settings with close contact.
Traveling internationally during this global pandemic has been both exhausting and liberating. I have been reporting on the virus since it first appeared in China – when I received regular updates from my relatives near the zero point of the pandemic in Hubei Province – until now, when my concerns began to turn to my family in the Province relocated US.
We have all experienced moments of paranoia, panic, and frustration.
The ever changing restrictions and guidelines from different countries are overwhelming. It has become clear that there is no magic solution to containing the virus until an effective vaccine is widely available.
Whether we live in a place with no restrictions or in an enclosed area, we all learn to live with the threat of Covid that may lurk in the next person we come in contact with.