I Was Quarantined in China, Then in the US. Here's How Things Differed

After watching coronavirus unfold in China and then the U.S. right afterward, I'm struggling with the right way to monitor this disease.
16 April 2020, 10:00am
I Left China for the U.S. Because of Coronavirus. I Wish I'd Stayed
Photo courtesy of Charles Harris

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

I got back to the U.S. from China on the last day of February. I was heading home to Raleigh, North Carolina, but I also have an apartment in Shenzhen, where I spend parts of the year. I'd been there about seven weeks. Getting off the plane at JFK wasn't the most confidence-inspiring moment: As soon as we deplaned, we had to go through this CDC line, where they took my temperature and asked me where I had been. There were no social-distancing parameters at all.

Everybody was filling out health department paperwork with the same pens. That was something it shared with China: You had to use the same pens there, too, if you had to fill out paperwork like that. It was just so stupid, especially in China, where there were such extreme levels of restriction. The government seemed to be missing some of the most obvious precautions.

In New York, a CDC worker had me write down my name and address. They told me, at the time, that quarantining wasn't necessary—that I didn't have to do it if I didn't want to do it. When I arrived in North Carolina, I fell asleep first thing because I was jet lagged. When I woke up, I probably had 30 missed calls from my local health department. No joke. They blew up my phone, and they were singing a very different tune, asking me where I had been and why I hadn't been answering, as if I were guilty of something. I explained that I was told in New York that I didn't have to quarantine. And the officials in North Carolina insisted that I had to. They were adamant. They seemed shocked about what I was told in New York. Honestly, they seemed pretty pissed.

Charles Harris

I'm not sure why, but I didn't expect to have to quarantine when I returned to the States. It's hard to remember now, but unless you were coming from Hubei province or Wuhan itself, the center of the outbreak in China, you didn't have to then. That was the CDC's stance at least. I had also gone to Sichuan province, which is next to Hubei province and is essentially all countryside. But that's basically the middle of nowhere. I was pretty isolated.

The moment that I began to worry, though, occurred in Sichuan almost immediately. I had gotten to China a week or so before the Chinese New Year, in mid-January, and headed straight to a village where some of my family was. We were walking down the street with some groceries, and I saw an eight-truck convoy of military vehicles. This was before it was really being taken seriously in China, but, you know, the military is typically not moving around like that the day before a national holiday. Somebody I know, who is connected to the city police in Shenzhen, warned me shortly [thereafter] that the city would be locked down—that nobody would be able to get in and out. I bounced before that occurred, so I could get into Shenzhen.

I had my temperature taken more during that trip to China than I ever have in my entire life.

Dealing with the airlines was the main thing that was keeping me from leaving China. There were so few flights going back to the States. They were constantly calling me back and telling me random dates that were available—all of them quite far out in the future, usually two to three weeks away.

So I was self-isolating in my apartment in Shenzhen for about five weeks, until nearly the end of March, waiting for the airlines to get me a flight. There, the government issued you papers. I had a business visa, which allowed me to leave the apartment every other day. Not that there was really anywhere to go besides the grocery store. They would take your temperature when you left the neighborhood, where there was only one gate open in and out of it. They would write down the date and time when you left; when you came back, they would do the same thing. You'd also get your temperature checked when you entered and exited every store, pharmacy, mall—whatever was still open. I had my temperature taken more during that trip to China than I ever have in my entire life.

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China is good at a lot of things. They're really good at controlling their people like that. It's a sovereign country that can make and enforce its own laws, of course, but they have the highest rate of surveillance of any population in the world. Let's put it this way: There's an infrared camera beaming up at my apartment building there, at all times. There's just much less a sense of privacy and onus on the individual—they were tracking people on their cell phones. Simply put, it's just a culture where people are much more willing to listen to their government.

That's the part I'm internally struggling with—the right way to monitor this. Society in the U.S. is obviously just very different: We're accustomed to our privacy, and we're used to freely moving around. More often than not, we don't like to listen to the government, and that's probably healthy in many respects—being skeptical of policies and how they're working. Just because China did something does not necessarily mean that the U.S. has to do that. Because what I'm seeing now is a bunch of people begging, almost unknowingly, to be more like China. Some of the U.S.'s own values might be getting eroded now out of fear. It's so hard to say.

More often than not, we don't like to listen to the government, and that's probably healthy in many respects—being skeptical of policies and how they're working. Just because China did something does not necessarily mean that the U.S. has to do that.

When I was in China, and I don't know if this was out of arrogance, but I didn't think the coronavirus would spread in the U.S., like it had there. It's strange and frightening that America was not as prepared as it could have been. Two or three days after I landed in China in January, I knew that they had redirected flights from Wuhan. Everything was really getting moving. The CDC had to know something was wrong then. It's common knowledge now, but the next two or three weeks in the States, there was clearly no sense of emergency—no nationalizing supply chains for personal protective equipment or anything like that. It wasn't until I got out of quarantine in the States, toward middle to end of March, when politicians were beginning to talk about stay-at-home orders and people were starting to hoard stupid shit, like toilet paper. I was free for a few days, in North Carolina at least, and then all hell broke loose.

I was afraid in China, but for more obvious reasons: I'm a foreigner, and it's difficult for me to talk to, say, the police. There were other, more specific things. There were rumors early on, for instance, that cats were spreading the virus, so you literally had all these people throwing cats out of their apartment windows. I didn't see anyone do this, but I saw cats laying on the road. That was unpleasant and scary. That was out of this world.

In the United States, when I returned, I could tell that there would be a much, much higher level of panic—that was my main point of concern. There was virtually no panic like that in China. The U.S. became a free-for-all. Everybody's all worried about a virus, but they're sprinting to the store to buy a pallet of paper towels while they're wearing no masks, no gloves.

There was virtually no panic like that in China. The U.S. became a free-for-all.

One large difference, in my opinion, is the media: Mainstream media here responds to the fear and panic and in ways can perpetuate it, whereas in China you have state-run media showing videos of doctors helping people, with this kind of unifying message. "This is bad, but we can beat this. Be careful, but don't be afraid." It was sort of positive or at least hopeful, but in the U.S., that's just not the case.

Having been in both places while this has been going on, I have a new appreciation for my freedom and liberty in the States. Even if they are temporarily limited at the moment. I agree with the U.S. government encouraging people to stay home, of course. But categorically [pulling over] people for being from New York or whatever, or just pulling people over randomly, that seems fundamentally wrong to me. The U.S. and China, it's weird; it's like two sides of the same coin. It's like the pot calling the kettle black, but it's a different kind of black and maybe a different kind of pot.

I wish I stayed in China, though. I could have been valuable there, as an entrepreneur. I had no idea there would be this type of mask shortage here, for instance. I could have helped people, and I probably would have made a small fortune.

Once this settles down, that's when the strong finger-pointing will come. Just wait. I'm really very worried: I don't know when—or even if—I'll be allowed back in China.

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