A South African’s experience of quarantine in China

Health officials in hazmat suits check body temperatures of passengers arriving from Wuhan, China, on January 22, 2020, at the airport in Beijing.
Health officials in hazmat suits check body temperatures of passengers arriving from Wuhan, China, on January 22, 2020, at the airport in Beijing.
Emily Wang/AP

The one time South African Melissa Redelinghuys could order a McDonald’s – while forced to live in her 3m x 3m Chinese quarantine facility – it was delivered to her by a “spaceman” – a health worker in a full hazmat suit.

The hamburger, still packed in the standard box and brown paper bag, was sealed in plastic.

“There were stickers on the brown McDonald’s bag. One for every person who had prepared the food, one for the person who packaged it and for the person who delivered it. Their temperatures and their names were recorded on the stickers,” said Redelinghuys (31), a pre-primary schoolteacher originally from Potchefstroom.

This Friday, she was finally discharged from the quarantine facility in Changzhou, China.

In China, she said, the days of people taking the Covid-19 coronavirus lightly are long gone.

Even in your apartment, the Chinese are very strict about lockdown. A sticker gets placed on your door so that they can see if you’ve tried to leave
Melissa Redelinghuys

“Nobody dares to go out on to the street without a mask, it’s law now. And,” she warned, “if South Africans don’t begin taking the rules of the lockdown seriously, this is what’s waiting for you.”

In January, as a result of fears about the “coming pandemic”, Redelinghuys packed her bags and returned to South Africa.

“I stopped working on January 18 and went to my parents in Hartenbos in the Western Cape. But, in March, my school asked me to come back. It was the right thing to do, considering that they had been paying me the whole time, so I flew back to China on March 18.”

Although she knew she was facing a 14-day quarantine, she hoped she would be able to spend it in her apartment in Changzhou, two hours from Shanghai.

“We landed in Shanghai, where we had to wait for two hours while the crew led passengers off the flight in groups of about 10,” said Redelinghuys.

After a long procedure dealing with soldiers and healthcare workers unable to speak English, she made it back to her apartment.

“Even in your apartment, the Chinese are very strict about lockdown. A sticker gets placed on your door so that they can see if you’ve tried to leave. If you go out when you’re not allowed, you go to prison.”

Eight days later, she received a notice informing her that she would be transferred to a quarantine facility by bus the following day.

“Luckily I’d heard a lot of stories about people who battled with the food and ended up going hungry; so my suitcase had more food than clothes in it, things like Ramen’s two-minute noodles.”

In the mornings, I could see the spacemen spraying the corridors with disinfectants through the keyhole of my room
Melissa Redelinghuys

Redelinghuys did indeed struggle with the food at the quarantine facility and the phrase “living out of your suitcase” suddenly took on a whole different meaning for her.

“The food is rice, without salt, that is cooked in a way that you can cut it into blocks, which you could use to knock somebody out, with pork liver, heart or stomach, and spinach cooked in water, just like that. Also, cauliflower without salt. Every meal comes with a bowl of Chinese soup that literally looks like dirty dishwashing water,” said Redelinghuys.

That was her meagre lot when it came to food. Until she got the chance to order a McDonald’s burger last week.

Speaking about the quarantine facility, she said: “Every morning at 7am I was woken up and given a dish with disinfectants, which I had to use to clean my room from corner to corner.”

Redelinghuys said the facility, previously a hotel before the virus, was also disinfected and cleaned daily.

“The corridors inside, walls, ceiling and floor were completely covered in plastic. In the mornings, I could see the spacemen spraying the corridors with disinfectants through the keyhole of my room.”

For most of the day she was left to her own devices.

“On Monday, day 12, they tested me for the virus for the second time. It was negative and, on Thursday, they let me know I could go home,” said Redelinghuys.

But that doesn’t mean she is free to carry on with her life.

“I’m basically just back in quarantine in my apartment. They let me know that I need to stay at home and someone will let me know when I can go out. But, at least I’m at home again.”


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