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Q&A: Expat quarantined in China shares how to survive 8 weeks of isolation

A shopping district in Nanjing is bustling with people before the coronavirus hit.
A shopping district in Nanjing is bustling with people before the coronavirus hit.
(Image: © Qi Yang/Getty Images)

As Americans adjust to the reality of social distancing and face an undetermined stretch spent staying away from friends, family and neighbors, millions in China are coming out of eight weeks of the same experience. Since the end of January, China has been locked down in an attempt to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that emerged in the city of Wuhan in late December. 

Life is not entirely back to normal in China even now. Schools remain closed in most provinces, and large gatherings are still prohibited. It's unclear whether further shutdowns will be necessary if loosened restrictions allow the virus to reemerge. But businesses are reopening and people are slowly starting to socialize once again. 

Karen Orteza, a U.S. citizen and a kindergarten teacher at an international school in Nanjing, China — about 285 miles (460 kilometers) northeast of Wuhan — decided not to evacuate the country when news of the virus broke. Since about Jan. 25, she and her husband have been practicing social distancing and staying at home. The city put into place strict measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including requiring temperature checks before people can enter buildings, shutting down dine-in service at restaurants and mandating that people must wear masks to enter any building. Individuals wishing to use public transportation were required to scan a QR code on their phones linked to an identification number proving that they had not left Nanjing in the past 14 days. People needed to use similar verifications to move in and out of residential compounds. Travelers entering and leaving the city had to have their temperatures taken, and anyone in contact with someone who had a fever was placed in 14-day quarantine at a hotel. 

Related: Live updates on COVID-19

Via email, Orteza shared her experience of living under these regulations with Live Science. This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity. 

Live Science: When did you go on lockdown, and what did that look like in Nanjing? 

Orteza: School finished on Friday, Jan. 23, for the Chinese New Year holiday. The students were due to have two weeks' holiday and the teachers one week of holiday and one week of professional development. At that point, we knew that the virus existed but didn't know the extent and were not really concerned about how it might affect Nanjing. Many people left Nanjing as scheduled to go on holiday, but my husband and I stayed. By Sunday, news was already surfacing that the virus was spreading quickly. People were advised to stay at home as much as possible. The USA had set travel advisories and was evacuating citizens from Wuhan. The U.S. advised citizens in other parts of China to leave as well. Churches, shopping malls, the wet market, small vendors and most restaurants closed immediately. 

For approximately the next two weeks, vegetables sold out of stores quickly but were replenished daily. There was never any visible panic buying — at least not in Nanjing. Some imported items were harder to come by due to delivery systems shutting down, but local products were in full supply. The only things that were difficult to find were surgical masks and hand sanitizer, as they were being sent to hospitals and to Wuhan and Hubei Province. Almost everything remained closed, other than main grocery stores and some fruit shops, up until the end of February. In early March, some restaurants began to reopen but only for takeout. Most people already use some form of cashless payment, such as Alipay or WeChat pay, so ordering from restaurants or grocery stores was simple. Motorcycle delivery people worked tirelessly the whole time delivering groceries to compounds. Taobao, China's biggest online shopping website, shut down as delivery was impossible.

We were free to leave our home from the very beginning only because we had never left Nanjing. However, anyone who left Nanjing (even for a day trip to Shanghai) had to complete 14 days of self-isolation at home. All flights into the country are monitored with temperature checks before and after the flight. If anyone has a fever on the plane, then everyone sitting within a certain number of rows must go into quarantine in a monitored hotel for 14 days.

Live Science: What was the mood like there, and how has it changed over the past few months?

Orteza: In general, the mood has seemed very calm here in Nanjing. People seem to understand that there is not much that can be done other than wait it out. There seems to be a lot of trust in the government in trying to figure out the best plan to contain the virus and move forward. China has the advantage of being able to say, "Shut down and stay home!" and having her people do just that! The ability to limit movement within residential compounds also helps. 

Of course, people do worry about those who are in the epicenter and about the medical staff who work tirelessly to care for those who are ill, but I don't sense any panic about those who aren't in the high-risk categories. The biggest thing is the uncertainty. At first, we thought this would only be for a few weeks, and the school has since set several tentative start dates. As each of those dates approaches, there is some disappointment that we still don't have the go-ahead to start.

Live Science: What was the hardest part about this for you?

Orteza: The hardest part for me has been the isolation. Fortunately, I have my husband, so I am not completely alone! Although some of my friends were still here, nobody ventured outside their homes unless it was necessary. I really missed ... having those quick chats at school with my colleagues or interacting with my students or taking walks around the neighborhood. When we go to the store, it seems to be that everyone just wants to get their business done and get out of there. It has only been the last week or two that more people are out on the street. When this situation first started, the streets were empty and we might only pass two or three people in a 45-minute walk — and that is in a city of 8.5 million! But on the upside, I found myself smiling beneath my mask at everyone that I did pass on the street. And I received a lot of smiles (I think … I really couldn't see them under the masks) and head nods from strangers that I passed on the street as well. It seems that everyone feels a bit more united now.

Live Science: How did you handle work, entertainment and general sanity during this time? 

Orteza: It has been an up-and-down thing for me being stuck inside for so long. We have always been able to get out, but for the first few weeks, we tried to only go out once a week to buy food. Being a kindergarten teacher, I am used to moving a lot every day! Our first week or so, I viewed it as a holiday and slept in, watched movies, read and relaxed. Then, as time went on, I realized that I needed to have a schedule and routine or else I would go crazy. Online teaching for us began on Feb 10. Through WeChat, email and other online platforms, I was able to do planning with my colleagues. As each week passes, we have been able to refine what we are offering to our students. There have been plenty of hiccups, but we are figuring it out.

It has also been helpful for my sanity to help other people. One of my colleagues and his family went to Vietnam on holiday. Their flight back to China was canceled, and their cat sitter ended up leaving for Germany. I was able to assume cat-sitting responsibilities. I have never been a cat person, but the first time I got out of the apartment and had someone (well, something) else to interact with, I was elated! I had such a good time interacting with that cat and ended up looking forward to my daily visits with her. It also feels really good to be able to make runs to the grocery store or school to pick up items that my friends in quarantine need. A sense of purpose helps with mental health.

Entertainment has come in the form of books, movies and TV shows. While watching TV, I knit hats and scarves for the school charity. Doing something productive while watching TV takes some of the guilt I feel for watching so much TV! I also have been using this time to do things that I always put off for another day … more reading, studying a foreign language (there are many good free sites), learning to play the ukulele, trying new recipes, calling my family more frequently and organizing computer files!

Live Science: What are your tips for Americans who are facing the beginning of a period of social distancing? 

Orteza: My biggest tip is to keep it in perspective. Don't focus on the media hype. Get the facts and then sit back and relax. Remember to be kind to others who might be facing greater uncertainties. One thing that has really impressed me is how kindly I have been treated by my expat friends and Chinese friends alike. People are going out of their way to be helpful. One of my colleagues and her family came back from Australia and are in hotel quarantine because someone near them on the flight had a fever. The hotel realized it was my colleague's son's birthday because they have their passports on file. The hotel surprised the family with a birthday cake. Little acts of kindness like this are evident everywhere.

Maintaining an attitude of understanding, flexibility and consideration makes all the difference. No one expected this virus to happen, and no one was prepared to have their life turned upside down. So, remember that we are all figuring it out together, and that can be a somewhat messy, unpredictable process.

Orteza shared a list of tips for making it through isolation with mental and physical health intact: 

  • Keep to a schedule.
  • Eat well. 
  • Get enough sleep and try to sleep at your regular time.
  • Exercise. 
  • Use the time to do something that you never seem to have the time to do — learn a new language, write letters, read, take up an instrument, do virtual tours, take a free course offered by universities.
  • Do something for someone else (send drawings or letters to a nursing home, make items for homeless shelters, call or write to family members that you don't see or talk to often).
  • Connect with someone each day, even if it is to smile at someone across the street or write a short message to someone.
  • Don't spend a lot of time on social media or watching the news. 
  • Get outside if you can. When the virus first surfaced in Nanjing, it was winter with dark and dreary days. The lack of sunshine was evident in my mood. Now that the sun is shining, I am sitting on my balcony most days, and it is wonderful! 
  • Stay positive. Look at the big picture. For many of us, this is not threatening. It is inconvenient and may be a slight hardship, but there are many people around the world who are far worse off. Find the silver lining. 

Originally published on Live Science. 

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  • GlobalNomad
    As an expat teacher living in Shanghai, I can confirm a similar experience as in Nanjing and support Orteza's suggestions for getting through this difficult time.
    Reply