Returnees to Beijing waiting to be registered and sent to quarantine hotels. (Photos: Alice Qin)

As soon as New York confirmed its first case of coronavirus infection, Alice Qin, a sophomore at Barnard College, started considering flying back to China. When Columbia and Barnard moved all of its classes online, Qin booked a direct flight scheduled to depart on March 24.

“We trust China more,” Qin said in Mandarin. “China has gone through the outbreak and knows how to deal with it. There’s adequate medical resources in China. If you really catch it, then your chances of being cured in China is higher than that in the US.” There are no statistics to confirm that statement, but Qin explained that in China, she could go to a hospital to get treated, whereas she wouldn’t know what to do in the US due to her lack of understanding of the medical system.

As the first country to be hit by the coronavirus, China seems to be gradually recovering from the outbreak that reportedly resulted in more than 3,000 deaths. For five consecutive days from March 19, authorities reported zero local cases in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, and were considering lifting the lockdown there. Meanwhile, the rest of the world battled against the outbreak. On March 26, the US overtook China as the country to have the most confirmed coronavirus cases, with over 86,000 confirmed cases.

The quarantine hotel in Beijing that Alice Qin stays at. She currently pays the rate of 400 RMB ($56.40) per day.

Jianing Tang, a junior at New York University, is scheduled to fly on April 1. She explained that she only decided to go back because her family, including her 80-year-old grandmother, was worried about her safety. Having read in the news that some Americans had started stocking up on guns, they were afraid of potential violence once the medical supplies became scarce in New York. Trump’s insistence on calling Covid-19 a “Chinese virus” and his dismissal of the risk of an outbreak did not seem reassuring to her parents either. 

A rapid surge of confirmed cases in New York has put many people on edge. After days of waking up to alarming messages from friends and family, Qin bought two more tickets for earlier dates. For her flight, Qin wore an N95 mask, a hat covered with a hoodie, goggles, gloves, shoe covers, and two pairs of socks, one of which she threw away after airport security checks. During the 30-hour trip from New York to Seoul to Beijing, Qin didn’t eat or drink, fearing the possibility of infection once she removed her mask. Other travelers wore raincoats, protective suits, and adult diapers for extra precaution.

At that time, Columbia University, Barnard College, and New York University had announced plans to evacuate students from university housing, resulting in even more students flocking home. For international students, the decision to go home didn’t come easily. With the Trump administration’s travel ban continuing to bar all nationals from China, Iran, and certain European countries from entering the US, many students wondered when or if they would be able to reenter the US later on. An email from NYU Office of Global Services gave “no clear answer to this question.”

The China International Exhibition Center in Beijing, used as a place to round up and dispatch returnees to assigned quarantine destinations.

Meanwhile, international flights to China continued to be in high demand. Direct flights became increasingly rare and layover stops started implementing regulations to restrict the number of travelers based on their nationality, visa, and destination. From March 24 on, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have halted all airport transit services. The United Arab Emirates suspended all passenger flights. Thailand now requires health certificates and COVID-19 laboratory results to prove that travelers haven’t been sick within the past 14 days. 

Due to the changing protocols at international airports, several WeChat groups, each of which has close to 500 people, have been set up to offer travel advice to returnees. Chinese students all over the world give tips on travel restrictions at major international airports. One message advised to “Take off your protective suits before temperature checks” to avoid high body temperature. Another detailed the items in that person’s carry-on bag: “10 N95 masks, 10 surgical masks, 15 pairs of gloves, several alcohol wipes, a bag of cookies, an egg yolk pie, and a portable charger.” Those who have returned to China also share their experiences with local quarantine mandates. 

Xiayan Ji, a Chinese student who recently flew home to Shenzhen, China, said that a notice was taped onto her front door and a camera was installed to ensure that both her parents and she followed the 14-day self-quarantine mandate at home. According to her, enforcement of the quarantine rules varied across households. While some did not have notices or surveillance cameras, others had a strip of seal across their doors. “I feel very safe. I’m with my parents,” Ji said.

Currently, direct flights from New York to China are almost impossible to find. Rates for flights with one stop are at $3,000 and above. Chinese students who are still waiting to fly monitor their flight status and check WeChat group messages constantly to stay up-to-date with the latest information. 

“The moment I saw Chinese staff with hazmat suits checking our temperatures, I felt at ease,” said Qin, who is under quarantine in a Beijing hotel. “When I landed in Beijing, I felt like that even if I had the virus, I wouldn’t be so worried.”