A transparent plastic bag dropped at the door of my Shanghai apartment contained a handful of surgical masks along with a “friendly notice” informing me that I was under home quarantine for two weeks.
The reason? I had briefly been inside the widening exclusion zone in China’s Hubei province, including a stop on the train as it passed through Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the new coronavirus.
“People who returned from or passed through Hubei to enter the (Shanghai) municipality must actively submit to temperature monitoring … and consciously implement home quarantine or submit to centralised supervision for 14 days,” it said.
The notice came from the Xujiahui District Novel Coronavirus-transmitted Pneumonia Epidemic Prevention and Control Leading Working Group.
I need to report my temperature by phone to a member of the working group twice a day until Feb. 10. It remains normal.
As a nurse standing at my door explained, the best way was to place a glass thermometer under the armpit for five minutes. As she spoke, a neighbour looked on anxiously.
A day earlier, there had been a knock on the door from two men from the local residents’ committee wearing what looked like clumsy military-issue gas masks.
When I opened the door, they took a wary step back and asked when I had returned to Shanghai from Wuhan，the source of the coronavirus that has killed more than 100 people and infected over 4,500 in China as of Monday.
One of the men informed me that I should know there is an “epidemic” going on in Hubei and I should be subject to special control measures, including two weeks of isolation at home.
At a Shanghai government press conference on Sunday, a health official said the city was now inspecting 95 suspected cases. I wondered if I was included in that statistic.
As the number of reported coronavirus cases started to multiply last week, a Reuters multi-media team travelled to the city of Xianning, just south of Wuhan, on Friday to report on the effectiveness of Wuhan’s day-old transportation lock-down.
My journey included a 10-minute stop at an eerily empty platform of Wuhan train station. I did not see anyone board there.
From Xianning, we reached Wuhan’s southern border and spoke with the auxiliary police staffing the checkpoint. It became clear that it was relatively easy to get into Wuhan, as long as we didn’t have wild animals or a fever, but harder to get out.
Xianning itself was not in lockdown when we arrived, but within hours its major roads and train station were closed and we left in a hired car, escorted by police, as soon as possible.
Police said that if we headed south immediately, we would be able to beat the lockdown.
On the eve of the Lunar New Year, we sped south along mostly empty highways towards Changsha, watching bursts of fireworks on the horizon.
At one packed service station, families trying to get out of Hubei ate instant noodles for their new year’s dinner. It was a far cry from the traditional reunion feast.
We arrived in Changsha early the next morning and I was back in Shanghai the same afternoon.