Entering Wuhan is easy, leaving is far more challenging

ST's China correspondent recounts her trials in securing passage out of the virus epicentre

Never did I imagine that the hardest part about reporting on a city lifting its lockdown would be trying to get out of it.

Getting into Wuhan was easy: I bought a ticket on one of China's numerous platforms, hopped on a train with a suitcase full of protective gear and disinfectant and just over four hours later, I was ushered across a platform towards men in white protective suits.

The return journey was far more challenging.

First, I had to apply for permission to return to Beijing through an applet on WeChat and once that came through, purchase a ticket. That sounded like a fairly straightforward process that turned out to be anything but.

The applet initially could not recognise my name and multiple calls to the helpline proved to be unhelpful because my travel documents were in English, which perplexed the people manning the line. Eventually, I realised I had to leave out the spaces between each word to make it work. This got me in line for my return to be approved by the local community organisation in Beijing - much like a residents' committee in Singapore - which would decide whether it had the resources to enforce my quarantine. If it did not, I would have to be quarantined at a designated facility.

That was the first of several agonising waiting spells, not knowing when I might get approved, or rejected, or the length of my eventual stay in Wuhan.

Journalists were told to send their details to the Hubei foreign affairs bureau, which would coordinate with Beijing to try to expedite the process.

As part of the capital's regulations to prevent imported cases, all travellers returning from Wuhan would have to show proof they were clear of Covid-19. This meant a nucleic acid test.

"A brain tickle", "like a skewer through your face", "like you're the sword swallower at the circus": These are just some of the descriptions of the test that can be published in a newspaper.

At the Wuhan Third Hospital, one of several designated testing centres, the queue spilled out of the main lobby onto the street outside.

"Can I take a video?" was the first question I asked the man behind the desk covered with labelled test tubes, reeking of disinfectant.

 
 
 

"How will you do the test if you're taking a video? Sit down! And don't put your things there, do not touch my table!" he said.

"Lean all the way back and go 'ah'. Don't lean so close!"

All that for a simple cotton swab.

But it felt like someone prodding around my throat with a chopstick and I experienced an exceptional urge to cough, gag or both. Just when I thought I might choke, it was over, and I descended into a gigantic coughing fit. For some reason, I thought of sanitising my hands that I'd just coughed into and reached for the sanitiser bottle.

"DO NOT TOUCH THIS AREA! PROTECT YOURSELF. I will squeeze the sanitiser for you."

Test done, ticket requested, interviews completed, all that was left to do was wait.

Never in my life had I refreshed an app this many times.

Finally, on April 16, the notification SMS came through.

"The system has automatically assigned you an order number… for G4804 on April 17, leaving Wuhan Station at 10.52am."

Two weeks of quarantine - my second in two months - awaited me in Beijing.

 
 
 

Strangely, after all the ticketing consternation, the triple document checks (passport, ticket, negative Covid-19 test) at Wuhan Station the next morning felt like a breeze. Passengers heading to Beijing were kept away from other travellers and went in through a separate entrance with its own security staff (all in full gear).

Back in Beijing, we were, once again, taken through a separate entrance and separated according to our districts. After that, we were ferried in giant coaches to a community centre, where we were further redistributed into minibuses, while keeping us away from the general public at all times.

The minibuses took us to our respective estates, where we were each made to sign undertakings to serve out two weeks of strict quarantine.

This meant we were not even allowed to open our doors outside of designated times and had to take yet another nucleic acid test before the quarantine was over.

This time, I'll try not to inappropriately touch any highly sanitised tables.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2020, with the headline 'Entering Wuhan is easy, leaving is far more challenging'. Print Edition | Subscribe