The Beer Chronicles Part 1 Written 17 March 2020

Isolationism: Isolationism is a category of foreign policies institutionalised by leaders who assert that nations’ best interests are best served by keeping the affairs of other countries at a distance. (Thanks Wikipedia for your basic but useful definition)

Russian roulette: a lethal game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against their head, and pulls the trigger, in the hope that the round does not reach the barrel of the gun and therefore fire.

To run the gauntlet: is to take part in a form of corporal punishment in which the party judged guilty is forced to run between two rows of soldiers, who strike out and attack him.

If you have a sword of Damocles hanging over your head, something bad seems very likely to happy to you.

This is my story. It is a long read and for that I make no apology. 

On the 4th March after a lot of procrastination, I booked our flights Belfast-Heathrow on Aer Lingus and Heathrow-Pudong direct with China Eastern departing on the 12th March, arriving into Pudong on 13th. Friday the 13th. The flight prices were just over 9000RMB for the two of us. Just over 1000GBP. A couple of days later, that price would be double. Demand was high for a direct flight, people were heading home. I had procrastinated because I didn’t want to go to a hotel for an undefined amount of time. I salute Martin and my colleague Shannon for being in the Howard Johnson studio serviced apartments since the beginning of February. Once I had it confirmed that we could go back to boarding/school after 2 weeks I was fine. After 2 weeks we wouldn’t be able to have heating but, Suzhou is lovely in the spring, the temperatures begin to increase, so what if we had no heating, we would have jumpers, hot water bottles and our lovely new mattress that was delivered at the start of Chinese New Year – just home comforts.

Our luggage allowance from Belfast was 20kgs and 1 suitcase each. Our luggage allowance with China Eastern was 46kgs over 2 suitcases each. So shopping I went. Stupidly I hadn’t stocked up on the little things like ibuprofen as the weeks had gone on, and on Tuesday 10th I went to Tescos in Carrickfergus. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to be faced with, I wasn’t going to be buying loo roll, hand sanitiser or pasta, but I did want own brand ibuprofen. Well it turns out, they had supplies of loo roll and pasta, but the hand sanitiser and soap had been depleted – apart from the Bayliss and Harding soap – the expensive stuff. The own brand ibuprofen and paracetamol had also been wiped out, but not the branded drugs – the more expensive stuff. It appears that people clearly have a budget when hoarding. I had already decided that I would not take back to China any of the clothes I bought for myself, leaving that all for our return at Christmas. Eleanor’s clothes we did pack – the rate she is growing there is no point in leaving them there for 9 months. And so with 2 full to bursting cases we rocked up at an empty Belfast City airport. I knew rightly I was over Aer Lingus’ limit, and at 26kg and 21kg, there was no blagging it. They did let me get away with 21kg. We checked in. I was 60GBP lighter as was charged 10kg per kilo, but it was better than checking in a 3rd case at 33GBP PLUS 10GBP per kilo. Sadly China Eastern code share with no airline flying out of Belfast, so there was no checking luggage straight through.

We landed in Heathrow at 2.30, collected our luggage at terminal 2, and got the free Tube transfer to Terminal 4. Our flight was at 9pm, check-in at section F opened at 5pm. We parked ourselves in Cafe Nero and waited. Looking around us, a few people were in masks, ours were in our handbags. At 4.50pm we headed to section F and joined a 20 person queue. All Chinese in ethnicity. All wearing face masks. As we weaved our way to the check-in desks more people turned up in masks and many were in full HAZMAT suits (hazardous material). Complete with swimming goggles or lab glasses. Eleanor and I caved and put on our masks. At this stage, I was anxious, but so was everyone else.

Luggage checked in, our seats were 63H and 63F. We hoped that we would have a seat between us. We had already been told the flight was fully booked, but still we hoped.

3 and a bit hours later, having secreted ourselves in a lounge, we headed for our gate. We had a temperature check as we boarded. Masks on, we sat down. Some girl (a double masker) came to sit in between us – she swapped seats with Eleanor, we wiped down our tables, arm rests, consoles. As did everyone else. The plane had probably never been so clean. Who were we on the fight with, what germs, could I do anything about it – no. I fell asleep. No blankets, no pillows and no headphones. Thankfully we had brought our own earphones so Eleanor was able to access the full suite of films. I slept from before take-off to about 3 hours before landing. We had a hot dinner before landing, and then we were given out white health declaration forms. Name, Date of Birth, where we were staying, seat number, phone number, plus another phone number of another contact, and questions as to where we had been in the last 14 days. Thankfully I could declare a clean bill of health for us both. I had not been able to do that on 25th January on the flight from Pudong to Hong Kong when Eleanor had travelled with a cough and a cold.

2 hours from landing, we had another temperature check. This time, the thermometer was pointed at my wrist. Eleanor was sound asleep on my knee, so I excavated her wrist, temperature checked before it flopped back onto my knee.

We landed at 3.50pm and at 6.05pm we were given a playing card which told me that we would be the next batch of people off the plane. At 6.10, we left the plane, and walked out to Terminal 1 into a queue of passengers waiting to be interviewed. I had completed the paper form, but I had also scanned a QR code on the plane and completed the same information online too. I had also shared my hot spot with a teacher from Shanghai. I also topped my data plan up to share data with Eleanor and with the lady. I hoped that if I had needed it, people would have done that for me.

The queue moved slowly, but we got to the front. Surrounded by workers in Hazmat suits it looked frightening. We sat down, our paperwork was viewed, we had to show our boarding passes – at which point we declared that Eleanor had swapped places. We were asked the same questions that was on the paper and another sheet of paper was completed and signed. This seemed to take an age because the guy’s English was broken, our Chinese is limited and listening to someone whose voice is muffled because of the mask and the plastic visor is testing. We passed that test and acquired a blue sticker on our passport. Then onto another line that snaked through two thermal temperature gates. On passing through the second, we acquired a green sticker. That green sticker meant that we had come from a country that was NOT Iran, South Korea, Japan, United States, Italy, France or Germany. That meant that we could go back to Suzhou by our own transport. Our driver was waiting. If we had been given a yellow sticker, that would have involved a bus to a holding centre then, bused to your compound. That would have taken forever. We went through immigration, – there was no queue. Then onto baggage reclaim. All the suitcases had already been taken off the conveyor and were standing around the conveyor belt. Thankfully we have TRIPP suitcases, including the one that my parents had given to us. TRIPP are bright. They do to black suitcases, but the ones we have are bright pink and green – meaning that they stand out. Luggage retrieved, we left the airport at 7.25pm with the driver who had been waiting patiently. He was to take us to the Howard Johnson. Our masks never left our faces.

At 9.30pm we got to the gate of the Howard Johnson (HoJo). Here we nearly came unstuck. The driver was stopped by the security guard. Not a HoJo guard but a compound guard. He wouldn’t accept the green sticker on our passports, and I had yet to complete the Suzhou Health Declaration on my phone which would show that I was of low risk. Anyhow, we have the most amazing Chinese support staff at school, and Jenny spoke to the guard using speaker phone. The guard refused my phone numerous times as he clearly did not want to touch anything. Jenny spoke to the guard then the receptionist and we were allowed in. I scanned two QR codes. One was to complete the Suzhou health form and the other was to track my phone – it confirmed that my phone had been in the UK. Bingo – we had checked in. Our 2 bedroomed serviced apartment 1629 would be our home for the next two weeks.

Martin had already been to boarding and got more clothes and food for us. He had unpacked. He was remaining in his studio apartment, and while we had contact, there was no hugging or kissing. We hadn’t seen each other since 25 January but there was no way I wanted to jeapordise his freedom. He had ordered us in a curry and we ate that and then went to bed.

Saturday and Sunday I didn’t leave the apartment. Martin ate lunch and dinner with us, even going to a local eatery on Sunday night and bringing us back Northern Irish McCanns Cider and a roast beef dinner. Eleanor had played on the Nintendo Switch with our friend Alfie who is also in quarantine. I had then invited my colleague fresh off the plane from Sydney round for a glass of wine. Many people now arriving from abroad are being placed in 14 day quarantine with a sensor on their door. We don’t have that at the HoJo, and while we have an ethical and moral obligation to follow this, each of us had weighed up the risks and made our own decisions. This is what kept me awake and now occupies my waking thoughts – well until 8pm tonight when either I will know that I have been right to feel guilty or whether I could have slept easy. 

9.34pm Sunday 15th March

My phone rings. Do I speak Chinese? No. Is this [saying Eleanor’s middle name] No. It is her Mum. What followed was a raft of emotions. Anger, sorrow, guilt. We had been sitting close to someone on the plane that had been diagnosed with the virus. Where was I? Suzhou. Ok, then the Suzhou CDC will be in touch in the morning. 

I emailed our Deputy Business Administrator, Ann. She talked me through what would happen. I was in tears, what I was frightened off – uh – the three people that we had seen that we/I had now put at risk. Putting that into words took effort through the tears. Then Eleanor came out the bedroom door. Deep breaths and then the explanation of what I had just been told. We spoke to Martin on FaceTime. A short conversation you can’t hold a phone and console a child and yourself. Eleanor and I played MarioKart, a computer racing game, on the Switch and at 11.30pm we went to bed. At 1am I woke up. At 2am Eleanor came in. She left again after some hugs. At 4.45am she stopped singing to herself and was asleep. I was working at 2.30am, answering messages, and then I wrote an email to Ann confirming my deepest fears, how idiotic and reckless I had been in letting Eleanor play with her friend (albeit in a well isolated room with masks in the lobby of the hotel), how I should not have invited my friend for a glass of wine – we sat at opposite ends of the sofa – when she came in it was awkward- both of us had wanted to hug but neither of us committing. Once I had written my confession, I was able to get to sleep. Until by alarm went off at 7.30 so that I could start work at 8am.

7.50am, Ann texted me that she and the school nurse Rosy were phoning Suzhou CDC and that I should wait. Knots formed in the stomach, I worked for a bit, checking my phone for that missed call or message despite the fact that the phone was right beside me on its loudest volume setting. From exhaustion and nervousness I collapsed into bed again at 10.30am. At 12.50 I woke up, and realised that Eleanor was still asleep too. She showered, and we had lunch. Still no word. Perhaps Suzhou CDC had come to the conclusion that we hadn’t been sitting that close, perhaps they thought the HoJo was ok for us to stay. No news was good news? Right?

2.43pm Monday 16th March 2020

Rosy called. We would be collected from the HoJo by the Suzhou CDC, she would follow us in a car as she was our bilingual contact. We would go to the hospital for a chest x-ray and then taken to the government approved hotel for quarantine. Proper quarantine. How long did I want for packing?

At 4pm we left the HoJo in tears. I had spoken and been in regular contact with someone who had just done the quarantine. She was positive and it reassured me. But for the hour and half I was in bits. Martin had Eleanor (at a distance) while we packed electronics, food, drink, clothes and books. I confessed to my two friends what had happened. Ultimately putting them in a spin and their stomachs in knots. And they are bound to be on high alert until our results come in. Packing through tears, was not “keeping it together”, but I held it together enough to pack 1 large suitcase, a carry on case, 1 bag of drinks and 1 bag of snacks, 2 mugs and 2 spoons (from the HoJo).

2 men came to the door, not in full hazmat suits, but just wearing surgical face masks. Eleanor and I put ours on and left via the service lift. Martin had left to meet us in the lobby, but the service lift dropped us at the back entrance. We were met by Rosy in her mask and an ambulance driven by a guy in a full hazmat suit. We loaded our stuff into the ambulance, cried and then we were off.

We were taken to a hospital east of school, to an area that I had never been to, never knew existed. We arrived at the back entrance, left our stuff in the ambulance, got taken down a short corridor where the x-ray rooms were. 30 seconds per x-ray then back in the ambulance. 

Off we went to the government approved hotel. We arrived at the hotel and we said goodbye to Rosy and we entered the hotel through the deserted carpark in the basement.

We had been told to go to the ninth floor. We pressed the button and up we went. The doors slid open and out onto the floor we went. That was also deserted apart from a couple of hellos. We followed the voices and came across two women who didn’t want us anywhere near them. On the window sill to our right was a large bag, 2 bags of food, a crate of 24 bottles of water, a watering can, some sterilising tablets and our key card for our room. 903.

Carrying all of this plus our suitcases and additional bags we got to room 903, opened the door, went in and closed the door saying goodbye to the outside world again.

We were much calmer after the hospital. We have a lake view, 2 comfy beds, a mini fridge and the food we have had has been fine. Breakfast was a bit hit and miss, but we have coco pops which we had out of mugs with the two stolen spoons. Dinner last night was smoked duck and chips with “salad” (lettuce), lunch was spaghetti with a tomato sauce and battered fish with a “salad”, a few kidney beans and 3 kernels of sweetcorn.

I am now in a WeChat group (a Chinese messaging service) with Rosy, and an assigned doctor. At 9am and 3pm we take our temperature and submit them via text to the group. I ask for things and they arrive at the door. Last night the room got colder, despite having the heat on. But of course there is no heat because the heating system could carry the virus, so a little heater arrived. Last night at midnight the occupant in the room next to us decided to shout out the window to his mate. I complained in the WeChat group to the assigned doctor. A couple of minutes later he shut up. But I was then awake for an hour.

St Patrick’s Day 17 March 2020

A day to remember. 8am breakfast arrived and at 9am a hazmatted woman entered our room.

We were to have the second part of the tests… swabs. Oral and Rectal. Our gag reflex meant that the oral swabs took a bit longer, and as it seemed that I was nearly sick due to my gag reflex, Eleanor was very unsure about this part of the process. We were given the option to do the rectal swab ourselves – while following a hand drawn diagram! That was fine. Results are 8pm tonight.

Eleanor still has school work to do, I still have counselling and life skills assignments to be chasing up. But today for me has been about writing this blog.

This morning the news was confirmed that Shanghai now has 2 more cases of Covid-19, both imported. 1 Shanghainese person working in London returning to China on my flight on 12th March and another from an Italian who left the Netherlands transiting through Paris on the 10thMarch. I find that the authorities have treated everyone returning and us with courtesy, calmness and kindness in what is an ever evolving situation.

The support from school has been overwhelming. I haven’t chosen to hide where we are. I know that it isn’t just us waiting for our results tonight. It is another couple of families and that scares me. 

But what annoys me is that Eleanor thinks that there is a possibility she could die or I could die. This view has come only from the media. And since we haven’t had any TV on since we arrived in China, it has come from 7 weeks of media in the UK. Focusing on the deaths. Not on the people surviving this virus. She is 11. No-one should be thinking of the ultimate consequence of this thing at that age.

So as it is 4 hours to results, how are we feeling?… scared and nervous and I am glad that blood pressure is not a measurement that I have to provide.