Zero-covid policy: A journalist's experience with strict protocols in China

03 Aug 2022 09:06am
China still implement strict Covid-19 protocols - AFP Images
China still implement strict Covid-19 protocols - AFP Images
NANCHANG - Bernama journalist, Hasnah Jusid is currently in Beijing for the China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 (CAPPC) programme held for five months at the invitation of the China Public Diplomacy Association (CPDA).

While most countries have eased restrictions that were first imposed in 2020 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, China has still not fully opened its borders to international travellers.

More than two years after the virus was first found in Wuhan, China is aggressively pursuing its zero-COVID policy following a surge in cases, with stringent measures imposed such as strict lockdowns and mass testing.

This writer shares her experience with strict COVID-19 protocols on arrival at the Nanchang International Airport, Changbei on July 17. The screening process and other procedures that she had to go through, took almost three hours before she was taken to a quarantine centre.

At the airport, employees including healthcare workers, and immigration and customs officers wore full body personal protective equipment (PPE), a scenario which took this writer off-guard. It was also a grim reminder of a similar situation when Malaysia was grappling with COVID-19 during the first year of its outbreak.

The current scenario is certainly a far cry from the first time this writer visited China during the pre-COVID-19 pandemic three years ago.

This writer was among 11 media practitioners including from Indonesia, who participated in the ASEAN Elites China Tour 2019 programme, at the invitation of China International Publishing Group (CIPG).

Inbound travellers then did not have to undergo lengthy procedures on arrival. They were only required to produce a valid passport and a visa as the entire process at the airport took only about an hour.

Preparations for China visit
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Opportunity knocked a second time for this writer. She is back in China, the world’s second-largest economy, for the China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 (CAPPC) programme for five months.

The visit, at the invitation of the China Public Diplomacy Association (CPDA), allows this writer together with two other Malaysian journalists to enter China, the world’s most populous nation with 1.4 billion people. The visit from July 17 is expected to end in November.

At present, only Chinese citizens and foreign nationals with valid residency permits and several types of special passes are allowed entry and our flight from Malaysia which was supposed to be on June 17, was delayed for a month.

The flight was cancelled following rumours of five positive COVID-19 cases involving an airline company, two weeks before our flight departure.

According to a circuit breaker order issued by the Civil Aviation Administration China (CAAC), it is mandatory for all passengers entering China to undergo COVID-19 tests and if five or more passengers on the flight are found positive, the airline operation can be suspended for a week.

If more than 10 passengers on board are found positive, the airline operation will be suspended for four weeks.

However, there’s a silver lining to the incident given that at the end of June this year, China has slightly eased its restrictions by reducing the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for every foreign traveller entering China to a week, while the self-monitoring period of seven days after quarantine is reduced to three days.

Before the departure date, we had to undergo COVID-19 RT-PCR tests, 48 hours and 24 hours respectively and upload the test results with fully vaccinated proof, flight details and photocopy of our passport on a website before verification by the Embassy of China in Malaysia. This is for the purpose of obtaining a Health Declaration Certificate (HDC) in the QR code format, which is valid for a certain period.

The HDC is important as the colour shown in the QR code will indicate whether a passenger is allowed to board the flight or otherwise, and in this case, a green colour means that all requirements have been fulfilled.

Before boarding the plane, I was rather apprehensive but the feeling was short-lived when we were warmly received by the cabin crew in their personal protective equipment (PPE) outfits. The situation was different as other airlines have returned to their normal operation by having the crew dressed in their official wear.

During the journey, the cabin crew would from time to time monitor the body temperature of all passengers on board. The flight from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to Nanchang International Airport Changbei (a distance of 3,269 km) took four hours and 24 minutes.

At precisely 8:52 pm (same time as Malaysia), the Shanghai Airlines flight finally touched down at Nanchang airport.

Nanchang is the capital and largest city of Jiangxi province, with a road distance of about 1,400 km to Beijing, or two hours and 15 minutes by air.

Tight procedures at the airport

On arrival at the airport, we once again had to undergo tight procedures. Upon disembarking, we were all given numbers and were asked to stand in a line to have our temperatures checked.

Next, we were asked to proceed to the Health Declaration Code counter for inspection and it was here that I entered the wrong flight number in the digital form.

Well, it was a case of a language barrier when it took almost 10 minutes for me to understand what the officer on duty was trying to explain. But an English-speaking officer managed to save the day in due time.

Once settled, this writer had to undergo another RT-PCR test, although the test results had not reached 48 hours, a mandatory requirement to gauge the extent of infection for all travellers upon arrival.

At the immigration counter, all documents including this writer’s official press card and a letter related to the China trip, was also inspected by the immigration officer on duty.

While waiting in the queue, airport personnel were always on guard to ensure that all visitors adhere to the physical distancing rule and that all standard operating procedures were observed.

All these processes took about three hours to complete.

"I was annoyed by the red tape, especially in filling tonnes of forms. This didn’t happen during the past two trips. However, I can totally understand the reason behind this.

"It took us almost three hours to get past the health code and declaration inspection, as well as the customs and immigration inspection. Previously, this would not take you more than one hour, thanks to China’s highly efficient technologies,” said Sin Chew Daily journalist, Vincent Cheong Jia Wei, who is among the Malaysian media representatives in this programme.

Quarantine experience in China

Once all processes were completed, we were later taken on a bus which took us to the quarantine centre, a 45-minute ride from the airport.

China has ruled that international travellers have to be quarantined at government-designated hotels, with costs to be incurred by the individual.

We had to be quarantined for seven days at a hotel in Nanchang and shortly after reaching the quarantine centre, all bags and luggage were sanitised. We were then directed to stay in our respective rooms.

Hotel staff will go to every room to administer COVID-19 tests on their guests every day at 8.30 am, while body temperatures were taken at 3 pm, with meals for lunch and dinner sent to their respective rooms.

Individuals who are COVID-19 positive will be quarantined at a health facility designated by the China government. Praise to Allah, none of us was tested positive during the period.

That was not all. We had to fill up travel registration forms for clearance, providing all information on the next destination, personal data as well as other travel details such as flight or railway ticket number.

The hotel also provides transport from the quarantine centre to the railway station, bus terminal or airport based on the information given after the quarantine period ends.

At this time, every individual has to show his green card in an application, which resembles that of MySejahtera, as proof that they are not positive cases or close contacts before travelling or while they are in public places.

An individual is also required to undergo COVID-19 tests once every two or three days.

Zero-covid policy

China is pushing ahead with its zero-COVID policy to cut off virus transmission as early as possible, although most countries have adopted a "living with COVID-19 virus” strategy. It said that the zero-COVID policy has managed to reduce COVID cases and fatalities compared to reported cases in western nations.

As with most countries, Malaysia has eased travel restrictions, reopened its international borders in phases with no quarantine on arrival for fully vaccinated travellers. It has also opened all economic sectors.

Malaysia entered the transition to an endemic phase of COVID-19 starting April 1, 2022 following the success of the national COVID-19 vaccination programme. This is further reinforced by the nation’s efficient and widespread system of healthcare. The Movement Control Order (MCO) is no longer in force.

"Malaysia and China adopted similar strategies to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early stages by enforcing lockdown, quarantine and treatment before the procurement of vaccines. However later, we chose to ‘live with COVID’ while China maintains its zero-COVID strategy.

"There are pros and cons, but the zero-COVID policy can only be implemented with the support of the people. It is clear that China does not have problems with it,” said Vincent.

"Hope everything runs smoothly during our stay here and we are prepared for any eventualities or other stringent procedures as set by the government of China in achieving its zero-COVID-19 target,” he added.

During this programme, the CAPPC among others will organise lectures on the socio-economic development, diplomacy, culture, science and technology, journalism and practical training with China’s media as well as visits to selected provinces. The participants were also given the opportunity to cover key domestic and diplomatic events in China.

Translated by Salbiah Said - BERNAMA