Cities across China whose airports have links to overseas destinations are comparing notes on measures to receive the droves of compatriots rushing home, while keeping out the coronavirus that first surfaced in the country.
The backdrop of the heightened health precautions at major aviation hubs is that China’s total count of imported cases is edging closer to 500, after Tuesday’s tally of 74 cases marked the highest single-day surge, according to the National Health Commission.
These mounting cases foreshadow an emerging “back flow” of the respiratory pathogen – officially known as Covid-19 – from overseas, which may negate China’s all-out efforts that have, by and large, fought off the once-rampaging contagion.
The improving situation on the domestic front is borne out by the drop in infection numbers in the epicenter of Wuhan, where no fresh cases are reported several days in a row – if official figures are to be believed.
But cadres in charge of major cities and airports are taking no chances in their efforts to stop the virus from creeping back, especially as the country starts to dismantle roadblocks and lift travel and party bans in a bid to resume traffic and business.
Except for Wuhan, Beijing now has the biggest cluster of patients being treated for infections, and 134 of the total of 150 that are showing symptoms or harboring the contagious germs are foreigners and returnees from more than 16 countries, mostly in Europe and North America.
China News Service reported that starting from Wednesday, the capital city would begin conducting epidemiological assessments and nucleic acid tests via deep throat saliva samples on each arrival from overseas, including those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, on top of an outright 14-day quarantine order covering all arriving and transit passengers, who will be strictly confined to designated isolation facilities.
Beijing officials have also given a caveat that those who are unfazed by the travel restrictions and the quarantine order and still want to go to the city will have to foot all the expenses during their isolation, from tests to meals.
Beijing’s medical manpower has been stretched thin because hordes of overseas Chinese fleeing the worsening outbreaks in Europe and the United States continue to descend on the city’s Capital Airport. The city has already closed its brand-new Daxing Airport to international passengers.
To cope with the spike in arrivals, China’s civil aviation authority has since last weekend requested most of the Beijing-bound flights from overseas to divert to 12 cities from Shanghai to Shenyang for health screening there, and passengers and crews given a clean slate can continue their journey to Beijing, but the 14-day quarantine will still apply.
Shanghai has also mandated all international flights to use its Pudong Airport since Wednesday, while rerouting most of the domestic services to its Hongqiao hub.
To minimize the risks of cross-infection and contamination, Shanghai will dispatch paramedic teams in full protective suits to board all inbound planes for inspection and screening, before passengers and crew members can be allowed to disembark for nucleic acid tests inside a fully-partitioned off infirmary and then be whisked to quarantine centers.
Shanghai has 94 imported cases thus far, second only to Beijing, after numerous Chinese expats scattered across Europe and the US fly to the city to return to their hometowns in neighboring Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian provinces in eastern China. The city’s party mouthpiece the Jiefang Daily noted that about 100,000 doctors, nurses and police and customs officers had been mobilized to identify, transport and look after arrivals that may have come down with the disease.
Since the end of February, Shanghai-based carrier China Eastern has also deployed wide-body jets to fly home thousands of Chinese businessmen and workers from Rome and Milan in pandemic-ravaged Italy, operating special flights that are likened to airlift missions. To avoid bringing the virus to Shanghai, these planes headed straight for Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, home for most of the Chinese running restaurants and trading firms in Italy.
Indeed, Zhejiang has also ramped up its own anti-virus measures and all arrivals from overseas, irrespective of which country they are from or the local epidemic situation, will be grouped together for centralized quarantine.
The southern province of Guangdong, where the two mega cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen both have extensive international air routes, will start post-quarantine health checks on arrivals who have finished their 14-day isolation.
Yet controversy broke out after the province decided to offer ease of passage to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan residents, who will not be bound over by the quarantine order as long as they pass temperature screening at airports and border checkpoints and have not traveled abroad within the past two weeks.
Questions are asked if Guangdong is leaving a “bolt hole” in its defense against the viral resurgence from overseas when Hongkongers are exempted from the quarantine order. Hu Xijin, chief editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, a sister publication of the People’s Daily, blasted Guangdong authorities for the “preferential treatment” for those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Hong Kong has reported 386 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, and 280 are still being treated. A raft of stringent measures from denying entry to non-locals at the city’s airport to an alcohol ban aimed at discouraging social gatherings announced by the city’s government on Monday are seen as an admission of the gravity of the situation.
Read more: China’s Covid-19 fight shifts to key cities