South China Morning Post economy desk reporter Ji Siqi recently flew home to mainland China from Hong Kong having not seen her family in her hometown of Shenyang in the northeastern province of Liaoning for over a year due to coronavirus restrictions. In a three-part diary, she will recount her 28-day mandatory hotel quarantine experience, which falls under the world’s longest virus prevention measures for overseas travellers – totalling 56 days. You can read the first part here and the third part here. Day 14-21: second Shanghai hotel After the first 14 days of quarantine, I could have left Shanghai and headed home, but I chose to stay. According to the policies of Shanghai and Shenyang, I could either choose to quarantine in another hotel in Shanghai for an extra seven days, or go back to Shenyang directly and quarantine for two more weeks. Like many people in the same situation, I saw this policy gap as an opportunity. I would rather stay in Shanghai so that I could be set free a week earlier, and I could hang out with friends in the fourth week in the city before returning home to spend the remaining 28 days with my family. Thinking of my upcoming free life a week later, I boarded the bus heading to the second hotel with a light heart. Then I saw a long queue of people along the street outside a hospital, and my heart sank Previously, you could book the second hotel on your own, but as the city was facing a flock of travellers from Hong Kong, this also became a random allocation to a government designated quarantine hotel. The bus left the hotel and drove north. For the first time in two weeks, I saw real people who were not in protective gear, although it was just through the bus window. If anyone could see me at that time, I’m sure my eyes would be glittering with greed. After over a year outside mainland China and 14 days confined in a room, everything seemed fresh to me. People were waiting for buses, delivery workers were weaving in and out of traffic on their electric bikes. Then I saw a long queue of people along the street outside a hospital, and my heart sank. It was a line for nasal or throat swab testing, and the scene had been commonplace in Chinese cities since 2020 as the country continued with its “dynamic zero-Covid policy”, with each local infection resulting in mass testing for the local community. At that time, Shanghai had just started to record a few daily local infections. Even though I was a bit worried, like many other people living in the city, I was confident that the city would overcome the latest wave quickly, like how it had done in the past two years. And it turned out that I, as well as most of the people in Shanghai, underestimated Omicron and didn’t realise the severity of the situation. Around 10 minutes later, the bus arrived at the second hotel and the staff welcomed us in full protective gear. It seemed that the hotel had just become a designated quarantine centre for seven day guests, as workers were putting up plastic film covering all surfaces, including the blankets, sofas and the door frames. A hotel employee told us that we could not order food delivery during the seven days due to the requirements from the health authorities. Just hang in there. You only need to stay seven days here, but we have to stay for a few months Hotel employee “Just hang in there,” he said. “You only need to stay seven days here, but we have to stay for a few months.” With the excitement about my forthcoming freedom, in the first few days I kept reaching out to all my friends in Shanghai and started to plan for the next week. But the excitement was fading at the same rate as the number of daily infections grew, and it was eventually replaced by pure anxiety when I heard about community lockdowns in the middle of that week. Again, I was not afraid of being infected, but scared of more quarantine that would keep me away from my family. I could not stop calculating and making risk assessments every day. If I stay in Shanghai for seven more days after my last hotel quarantine, theoretically I would be free to go, but given the current situation, simply going to a shopping centre or eating in a restaurant may result in extra quarantine with a simple close contact. After one more week in Shanghai, there would also be more uncertainty over whether I could go back to Shenyang without additional hotel quarantine if the cases kept rising, given my hometown’s consistency about implementing extra stringent measures to contain the virus. There would also be uncertainty over whether I could go home at all if Shanghai was placed under a lockdown. I had also considered taking a detour to other cities, such as Chengdu, for seven days, before going back home. But the safest option was going back to Shenyang directly, though that meant I could not escape the extra one week of quarantine. One day before the end of my second round of quarantine, Shanghai welcomed a warm and sunny Saturday while recording 83 local infections. While some residents in the city had been in hotel or home quarantine as close contacts of confirmed cases and some neighbourhoods were locked down to conduct mass testing, many people stepped out of their flats and went to parks across the city to feel the spring day. The white Yulan, or Magnolia flowers – the symbolic flower of Shanghai – was in full blossom that weekend. This sign of positivity almost made me decide to stay in Shanghai, but as more and more worrying signs came later at night, I booked a flight back to Shenyang for the next day. Looking back, this might have been the wisest decision I made throughout the whole journey. One week later, most neighbourhoods in Shanghai had been placed under lockdown for rounds of mass testing, and the city’s daily infections rose tenfold with no sign of declining.