Out of Quarantine: Business as Usual for Frederik Geirnaert

life in quarantineIn case you missed it, Global Project Manager Frederik Geirnaert recently shared his detailed story of life in quarantine. Frederik was required to be on a project site in Shanghai in August. Here is Frederik’s follow up after finishing his mandatory quarantine…

Friday, August 28: Business as Usual
Yes, you noticed. I skipped a day. Well, there just isn’t that much to report. Still doing a lot of work. Still doing exercises 5 times a day. Still watching Netflix comedy specials or Belgian TV when I have the time for it. But I do feel like I am in the home stretch. In part because today I paid the 120 CNY for my 2nd COVID test that will take place in 2 days. In part because every day I see the ‘new arrivals’ join our Wechat group and ask the same questions like, ‘When will our meals arrive?’ or ‘How can I have something delivered to my door?’ or ‘How exactly do I report my temperature?’ Makes me feel like an ‘old hand’ watching them find their way. I do also feel a bit sad today as it is my wife’s birthday. But more about that tomorrow.

Saturday, August 29: Birthday Planning
This post is not so much about my day today, but about the day I planned for my wife’s birthday. Birthdays are special in our family so since I couldn’t be there, I tried to make it quite special. The first step in my masterplan was to recruit co-conspirator in chief Stefanie (a friend and colleague of Karen) and of course the kids. They had to ensure Karen was kept unaware of our machinations. At 8:45 in the morning, Stefanie went to the bakery to pick up the Belgian pastries and 2 large cakes. She then came to our home to wake Karen up and they had breakfast with the kids. During breakfast, our little nieces also brought the nicest birthday cards and some flowers (I did not plan for that, but they are the sweetest nieces living a couple of doors down the street). Apparently, I ordered too much for breakfast. They couldn’t finish it all. At 11:00 another friend Marleen dropped in with her kids and so did Karen’s sister. I had ordered pizza but ordered too much again and they couldn’t finish it. At 14:30 both Karen and my parents came by for coffee and cake. You guessed it… too much cake. At 17.30 another friend Tatiana came around and she joined Karen and Stefanie to go to Villa Anamma where Anke, yet another friend, and ex-colleague of Karen joined them around 18:30 for dinner. At 20:03 they left for the drive-in/walk-in cinema of Copacobana Festival where I had my biggest surprise of all in-store. That morning I had recorded a short movie message that said, “Hi honey, I’m very sorry I had to travel to Shanghai for work. And I’m sorry I have to be in quarantine here for 14 days which means I can’t be with you on your birthday. I hope you’ve had a nice day though and please enjoy the movie!” Thanks to my friend Joachim who works for Copacobana Festival they showed this clip before the movie. Karen was super surprised! It’s all part of being a logistics planner I guess.

Sunday, August 30: My Second Test
I was told yesterday that I should be ready for the second COVID-19 test today. I was told specifically to rinse my mouth and be ready before 1300h. Makes you wonder why they have to ask for that. I was dreading it a little bit, but at the same time, I was also looking forward to it. I would see another human being in person again for the first time in 11 days! It’s funny, but I actually showered, brushed my teeth, dressed up (well, I put on a shirt and shorts), and tidied up the room in anticipation. I was ready like a puppy at 1300h, but it wasn’t until 13.40 they knocked on my door. Well, the experience was a bit underwhelming. The nurse was in full protective clothing with a mask, face shield, and goggles. And she was in and out of my room in less than a minute! So much for human interaction. But on the upside: it didn’t hurt a bit. Fingers crossed now for a good result. Counting down until Wednesday.

Monday, August 31: Start of the Load Out in Qidong
Things are heating up a bit as the project I am here for is actually kicking off. Today, 2 of the 4 LNG tanks that we’ll be loading to BBC LOUISE have loaded to 2 barges at the supplier’s private jetty. Ideally, I should have been there as well, but that was practically very difficult as the supplier is in another province and that would have meant a separate entry application for that province. And on top of that, they started today while I’m still in quarantine. But the loading is in the scope of the supplier anyways and they have plenty of experience. So I had our 3rd party surveyor attend the operation and he kept me in the loop by sending WeChat messages and pictures by the minute. I still managed to give quite a few instructions and improve on some issues.

Tuesday, September 1: Last Night of Quarantine
Hurray! The result of the COVID test came in and I tested negative. So I’ve been told to pack my bags tomorrow morning and be ready to be escorted out of the hotel at 0800 in the morning. I am very excited and looking forward to seeing what Shanghai is like these days, but at the same time, I have a sort of feeling that I will miss my quarantine life. Things are simple here (eat, work, exercise, watch Tour de France, sleep, repeat).

Wednesday, September 2: Freedom!
The end of my quarantine came – true to fashion – in a very ‘efficient’ but rather impersonal manner. As instructed I was packed and ready at 0800 sharp, mouth mask at hand. At 0815 I unpacked my laptop to continue working a little. I kept checking my watch, but it wasn’t until 09.20 they knocked on my door. I put on my mask, opened the door and one of the taikonauts was there (all wrapped up in hazmat suit, glasses, etc.) I quickly tucked my laptop away, took my luggage, and sent me off to the elevator. Two other guests got in with me in the elevator and we went to the ground floor. On the ground floor, we had to wait in line for another temperature check and when that was OK we had to sign a document twofold that stated I completed my quarantine and I received a signed/stamped copy of my COVID-19 result. Then I was ushered on to pose against a wall and a picture was taken of my ‘certificate’ and of me holding the certificate. One step to the left and I was given the invoice for the hotel and – rather unceremoniously – shown the door. I didn’t go at once, because I knew from friends and colleagues I should also have an app to show a green QR code. I had tried to install that app, but because I don’t have a Chinese ID card, I had not managed to install it. So I asked the people at the hotel to help me. They looked at my phone, had me switch Wechat from English to Chinese, tried to do the same stuff I had tried earlier, concluded it didn’t work, and finally handed back my phone saying: if you don’t stay in Shanghai longer than 14 days you don’t need the app, your certificate is good enough! Even though there was no marching band greeting me when I walked out, I felt quite jubilant. The next part of my day was pretty standard, but also filled with quite a few firsts:

– I took a Didi (Chinese Uber) to our office
– I got into the elevator with about 10 Chinese people, none of whom were wearing masks
– I worked at our office
– I had lunch with our MD Eileen and I shook hands with a new colleague David (FIRST handshake since March!)
– Cross the street to the hotel I always stay at (where I had a bit of a scare… at first they couldn’t find my booking and then they said ‘we don’t accept foreigners here’… what??? But in the end, they found the booking Eileen had made, and all of a sudden they did accept foreigners. Phew…)
– Went to eat at our long time favorite Xinjiang restaurant on Wuding road / Xikang road with Kit, Tom, and Ya Li
– Now back in the hotel where I succeeded just now in downloading yet another app and registering (with the Chinese phone number of my wifi-pod) in shanghai and I got a green QR code!

Friday, September 4: Bustling City, Lockdown Stories
After 14 days of quiet quarantine life, it has been a bit of an adjustment to shift gears into the hustle and bustle of Shanghai life. It started with a very short first night. As you might have noticed from my last post, I didn’t get to sleep until like 2 am. And I woke up around 5. My first night in a new room is usually not the best, but this time it was a tad bit worse. I can start to have a slight understanding of how prisoners feel when they are released. The silver lining to my early morning is I could take a very nice picture of the view from my window. But I have also thoroughly enjoyed the Shanghai life already. Lunch and dinners with friends and business partners, some shopping, visited the bank to have my bank card activated, and finally link my WeChat pay! So now I can also use that functionality and use shared bikes, ride-hailing apps, and the like. I have also asked some friends and colleagues about their lockdown life back in February, March, and April. It turns out that lockdown in Shanghai was pretty similar to lockdown in Belgium, with some subtle but important differences. You were asked to stay inside as much as possible and working from home was obligatory for non-essential work. You were still allowed to leave your house and your compound/neighborhood for buying groceries and even for sports like bicycle riding and so on. But your temperature was taken every time you left the compound and when you returned and when you entered a shop and the like. and you did have to get your ‘green QR code’ scanned each time as well. Yet most people tell me they did not really want to go outside. For everyone was ‘on board’ and everyone understood very well that this was an emergency and only by everyone making the effort could the virus be kept out / kicked out of Shanghai. Things were also a bit different if a COVID case was reported in your compound or neighborhood. If that was the case, your compound would go in strict lockdown and everyone had to stay inside their homes. The same was true for people coming in from outside of Shanghai. A friend told me his son came back from finishing his doctoral degree in the USA. In those days the system with quarantine hotels was not compulsory, but the alternative was also pretty tight. When he went to pick up his son from the airport both their QR codes (red for risk) were scanned when they left the airport and they were told to head straight home without stopping. It was raining cats and dogs, but when they arrived at their compound the person in charge of their local neighborhood committee was waiting for them outside. He scanned their QR codes again to confirm they had arrived and he escorted them to their own home where they both then had to stay inside for 14 days and until their 2nd COVID test was negative.

So all in all Shanghai seems to have had a relatively light – but long enough – lockdown. But in combination with tight ‘border’ controls, excellent contact tracing, and tight lockdown of potential hotspots. All executed with great success as there have been only  7 deaths and less than 2000 infections! Of course, I also asked about those numbers and the consensus seems to be that definitely there must be more deaths, if not from COVID-19 then surely due to collateral deaths of people who postponed hospital visits and the like. But all people I speak to say the real number would certainly be less than 100 deaths. And the real number of infections they all said would probably be around 4000 or 5000, but certainly not more. They would have known. You can’t keep any higher number of cases a secret for Chinese netizens. When I tell them we now have 400 infections per day in Belgium with less than half the population of Shanghai and that we are not in a strict lockdown they find that rather incredulous. I also asked the floor manager of my hotel and it turned out she was in Wuhan during the lockdown. Out there things were, of course, more strict. She could not leave her home under any circumstances. Except for when they had ordered groceries. Those groceries were delivered to the entrance of their compound and out of every household 1 person (the same person each time) could go down and collect the groceries, wearing a mask, being temperature checked, and keeping 1,5m distance at all times, ‘of course’. She said there was a bit of anxiety, but not really any panic. Everyone simply kept inside and made the best of it for those months until the lockdown was finally lifted and she could come back to work in Shanghai.

Saturday, September 5: Barges Arrive, the Ship Has to Wait
Our barges arrived at the loading port in the Minhang district today. This meant they had to pass the Bund, which is the most iconic place in Shanghai. Good photo-op I obviously couldn’t miss! On a sad note, some other cargo has not arrived yet and while the ship is arriving today, she can’t berth yet as that other cargo needs to arrive and custom clear before the ship is allowed to berth. I’m afraid I will have to postpone my return trip by a couple of days.

Tuesday, September 8: The Fun Has Finally Started
Our ship has berthed, so the fun has started. My idea of fun in Shanghai? Helping the chief mate and his crew keep a 16×18 meter, 50-ton heavy deck plate steady during loading! Getting into the port and onboard the vessel was another thing though. Because of an event that will happen in 2 months (annual import/export fair), the port of Shanghai issued a new regulation that only the vessel agent, stevedores, and port captains can board the ship! Luckily we had the kind support of BBC Chartering and they ‘promoted’ me to assistant port captain. I was registered in the port visitor registry as such and then I could go apply for a boarding permit. My Chinese colleague had to go into border police near the port to go and get that permit as I was a potential bearer of disease and could of course not be allowed inside ?. At the port, another issue… the guard at the one entrance didn’t let me in. Luckily enough the guard at the other entrance did have my name on the list, so I could enter. I did have to wear a full-body protective suit, gloves, and glasses though! And for going on board there was a little check post next to the gangway where I had to register again. More trouble… but in the end I helped the guy select ‘passport’ rather than ‘Chinese ID card’ and then again to tell him he should scan the number code at the bottom, not the picture and that worked! I was registered and could board the vessel. Pulling 50 tons in a full-body protective suit with a mask is tough work, though!

Thursday, September 10: A Job Well Done
Happy to report all cargo was safely loaded. It cost a bit of time and a lot of sweat, but only a little blood (slight cut to the finger) and no tears! There were a few critical situations (overly eager barge captains jostling to come alongside, paying little heed to the tanks behind them, twisted lines during hooking on, finding a way of access/egress from the tanks before/after hooking on,…) but in the end, it worked out like a charm. And on its way out the vessel passed the Bund again!

Friday, September 11: Heading Back to Belgium
My adventure in Shanghai has ended and I’ve returned to Belgium. The return flight was quite relaxed, especially compared to the trip there, but there were still some pitfalls to be avoided and documents to be completed. I traveled from Shanghai (again with a pit stop in Seoul for a crew change) to Paris, then from Paris to Amsterdam. 4 governments, 4 different ways of dealing with things.

For China it was quite straightforward as I assumed they were happy to see me go:

  • A paper form for a health declaration was all
  • Of course, the usual ‘exit’ declaration which I had almost forgotten about

For the French it was a bit trickier:

  • A surgical mask was a must before being allowed to board
  • A health declaration had to be made ‘on honor’, but nobody ever asked or checked it
  • A ‘whereabouts’ declaration had to be completed on the airplane and handed into the crew before arrival

I felt a bit iffy on arrival in France for I was keenly aware that I was leaving the safe place of Shanghai for the uncertain ways of a continent with COVID numbers on the rise. I’m not sure, but it might have been the large number of fellow travelers donning full protective suits that might have given me this feeling. ? In Charles De Gaulle everybody was wearing a mask, although often again in the ‘European’ style preferred by people who believe the nose is not connected to the respiratory system. Keeping distance was also not always observed very strictly. But I tried to keep my space in as much as possible. France also acknowledges that I was coming from a super safe place, so I didn’t have to be tested.

For the trip to Schiphol, KLM did not insist on surgical masks, but some kind of mask had to be worn on the flight. And another ‘health declaration’ was to be filled in, but nobody asked for that one either, you just need to ‘have it’. On arrival, there was a testing station, but again people from China didn’t have to be tested. (Side note: I spotted another fellow European on my flight to Amsterdam who had also been on the flight from Shanghai. He had spent 2 months in Wuxi for setting up some new production lines for making chip-making machines. But he had also had a bit of a tougher deal in quarantine as he had been quarantined in a Jinjiang motel. 20m2 living space only!)

Mask wearing was far from fully observed in Amsterdam, but people did stay distanced a bit better compared to Paris. Then on to Belgium where I had to complete my return form online 48h before returning. I had received a QR code within minutes of completing the form. So, I thought that was that, but it seems I was wrong. Saturday night, some 12h after I landed in Amsterdam and some 48 hours after I had completed the form, I received a text message stating I had to get myself tested for COVID again. To be frank, I’m impressed that the system works, but I’m baffled people coming back from China need to be tested. Apparently, anyone coming from outside of the EU, be that from ‘green’ zones or ‘red’ zones, needs to be tested and home quarantined. Makes no sense to me, but well… when has our government ever made sense? Kudos to the Ghent COVID test center, however. With the code received in my text message, I could get an appointment online for a test on Monday 0900h. I got to the hospital, scanned my QR code, was let into the nurse room, and 3 minutes after arrival I had been tested and was on my way. And just now (36h after the test) I logged in to a special website and could get my result (negative… of course!). So now I can make an appointment for another test next Monday and then I’m allowed out of home isolation. Very smooth, but still very much unnecessary if you ask me.

Final thoughts:
As a final closing thought of these past 30 days I am really wondering if it would not be better if our government, probably best in coordination with the entire EU, would once again impose a rather strict lockdown for 4 to 6 weeks until there are absolutely no more COVID cases for 2 weeks in a row. Then we could instate strict travel restrictions and ‘China-like’ quarantine for people coming in and our lives could go back to normal, just like in Shanghai. I know that is a lot to ask. But I do think if you ask most people, especially those in like the culture and event business or the catering and travel business, I think you will find most people would be willing to make that effort. Just 4 to 6 weeks (or however long it takes) of strenuous effort and then we can go back to normal for 99%. I do hope our European governments find the courage to get that done. But I fear they will not. So I guess we will stay in limbo on this roller coaster of rising and falling COVID cases and – unfortunately – a slow but ever-increasing number of fatalities and an ever longer delayed return to normality. Quite sad, now that I have tasted of what life could be ‘if only’…