Conducting foreign operations in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic is not an easy task. To reach a customer in China, FAMUR Group employees had to undergo almost a month-long quarantine and many tests for coronavirus. What is travel to and in China like today? – here to report is Karol Bartodziej, Director for the Development of the electrical segment of Elgór + Hansen SA (FAMUR Group).
Today, travel from Europe to China is only possible in justified cases. In March 2020, all previously issued visas were cancelled and to get a new one, it is necessary to provide a valid economic reason. No more than 48 hours before departure, PCR tests (for COVID-19) and IgM tests (for short-term antibodies, following recent illness) are required. Only a negative result of both tests allows you to apply to the Chinese authorities for permission to board a flight to China. On board, passengers must wear masks at all times during the flight.
Once off the plane, we undergo the registration procedure and our first PCR test for coronavirus in China. A special bus then takes passengers to a quarantine hotel, where they must undergo mandatory 14-day isolation at their own expense. You should be aware that when the hotel room door closes behind you, leaving the room is prohibited and punishable as a crime.
Special transportation of travelers straight from the airport to the quarantine hotel.
A meal is left at our door three times a day and body temperature is checked twice a day. On the third day of stay and three days before leaving the hotel, swabs are taken for a PCR test. The whole procedure applies to everyone, whether a Chinese citizen arriving from abroad or a foreigner. This quite effectively separates China from the virus prevailing outside its borders. Once the quarantine is completed, a certificate of completion is issued and you receive a green Health QR Code on your smartphone system, which allows you to move around freely – at least within the province where you crossed the border and underwent quarantine.
However, if you want to travel further to another region of China, you will face a second 14-day quarantine. It takes place in the target province. Thus, if your plane, arriving from abroad, lands in a region other than where you have business to conduct, a total of 28 days of quarantine is required. Further movement within China is then possible without quarantines, except when you travel through areas designated as high risk for COVID-19 infection.
Health QR Code and Traveler's Code – two apps essential for getting around in China. The first tracks the course of our potential infection, analysing PCR tests and quarantines completed (the QR code was censored due to the medical information behind it), the second records how we move and whether we come into contact with infected people.
In addition to state restrictions, company-specific regulations apply. For example, during the increased migration of people during Chinese New Year, large workplaces issued an order that a foreigner could not enter their premises for an additional 7 days after quarantine, while a native Chinese citizen must take a PCR test for COVID-19 up to 3 days after changing provinces or undergo self-isolation at home for 14 days.
Health codes on smartphones and thermal imaging cameras
China currently employs common population movement control as a tool for combating COVID-19. According to the regulations, every restaurant, business, store or service outlet has an individual QR code on the door that must be scanned with a smartphone before entering. In response, our current Health QR Code is generated, which we are required to show to staff. If our code is green, we can enter, yellow means we cannot enter and must self-isolate, and red means we must immediately be officially quarantined and tested. While scanning the code of a given store or service point, we simultaneously register on the system servers the information at what time we entered it and with what colour of the Health QR Code.
In addition to being required to show the code, you must also have your body temperature checked. There are even automated gates with thermal imaging cameras being installed at workplaces and other larger facilities. Therefore, if you have so much as a cold, it is better to undergo self-isolation right away so that your QR code does not change colour.
An automated thermal imaging system that measures the temperature before entering a workplace.
Another tool used in China is the so-called Traveler's Code. It is a separate smartphone app that collects information about what cities we have traveled through in the past 14 days and whether there was anyone in our immediate environment who tested positive for COVID-19. Both software are installed upon arrival in China and without them it is practically impossible to check into a hotel or get to a train station or airport. They are linked to our passport number and phone number. While testing for COVID-19, we always have to provide our passport number and thus our health status is updated in the app after every test.
Foreigners are treated with a great deal of distrust on a daily basis and are identified with the messages of local television and Internet services. In the media, immediately after the official presentation of China's success in the fight against coronavirus, there is a selective representation of the situation in Europe and the USA, where further restrictions are introduced and the number of cases and deaths is counted in tens or hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, the average Chinese citizen is unaware of the journey a foreigner must take to be let out onto the street freely. This state of affairs sometimes makes daily functioning and meetings with contractors difficult. For example, hotels that accepted foreigners without any problem before the pandemic are now often difficult to check into or require additional restrictions for such guests. It is also necessary for hotels or industrial plants that have issued passes to enter their premises to register foreigners at police stations. Such applications are scrupulously checked by officers, which means great inconvenience for enterprise authorities who are reluctant to issue invitations for foreigners to come to China for the visa process.
Swab collection point at the city hospital.
Streets return to normality
After a period of strong restrictions due to a national quarantine in mid-2020, life in China has mostly returned to normal. However, the movement of people is regularly monitored and neighborhoods or entire cities are closed down if even a single infection occurs. It is mandatory to wear masks in enclosed places and in public transport, although this is now less and less observed in practice. Swimming pools, sports facilities or discos operate as usual. Similarly, meat or seafood markets that were so talked about at the beginning of the pandemic are operating without any problems.
There are also no restrictions with regard to the number of passengers on a plane or train within China. Comparing this to Poland, where it is impossible e.g. to meet a group of friends in a restaurant these days, one has to admit that the Chinese government's strategy makes everyday social and economic life develop as if the COVID-19 problem did not exist. I also asked the Chinese about their approach to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. The response was that they did not feel the need to do so since the virus was virtually non-existent in China.
Due to numerous restrictions, whether introduced by airlines, border authorities, or epidemiological authorities, there is no sense of the threat of infection at any stage of travel or throughout the stay. All people flying in from Europe have up-to-date medical tests, while everyone on the streets of China has been through at least one quarantine and is notoriously monitored, even when entering a supermarket or workplace. The result of this is that there is no sense of threat.
Temperature measurement at the entrance to a restaurant.
As I write this article, I am still in China and for now, it is impossible to predict how our return to Europe will look and if any difficulties await us. Each country is very dynamic in changing its rules related to COVID-19. According to the guidelines on government websites, if you do additional tests up to 48 hours before departure, then your return should go without major complications.
Pandemic severely hinders foreign business. The obligation to quarantine, to perform several tests – all this significantly increases the time of business trips, complicates the planning of the itinerary and increases the cost of the trip. This is why so few foreign business representatives choose to visit China today. Despite these complications, such a trip is an interesting experience and leaves many unusual memories, leaving you with a lot of material for long stories to share with friends.