“I was so nervous and nauseous that I was sweating through my latex gloves the entire flight.”
This is how Suani Rincon describes part of her journey from Shanghai to her home in Vancouver, Canada amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.
In late January, after celebrating Chinese New Year, 22-year-old Rincon first noticed a shift in the city’s energy when she boarded an almost empty Shanghai metro. Shanghai’s metro is never empty.
The only passengers on board were all wearing masks.
Rincon initially thought that the panic about COVID-19 would die down quickly. When she found out that all pharmacies, convenience stores, and supermarkets in her neighborhood were sold out of masks, she realized that things were more serious than she thought.
She immediately went on Taobao, a widely-used Chinese online shopping website, and bought a box of 200 facemasks.
Wearing a 3M mask in public places, Rincon went on with her regular routine. She went grocery shopping, walked the dogs she was dog-sitting, and practiced for her Master’s in Musical Theatre program audition.
For the last four years, Rincon has called Shanghai home. She attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music after moving from Vancouver at the age of eighteen.
She describes how she never experienced such an empty Shanghai before.
“I admit it was kind of nice at first because the streets were empty and my boyfriend and I would take Wallace and Napoleon (the dogs) out for long walks. We even walked all the way to the Bund and it felt like we had the city to ourselves,” says Rincon.
Her mentality changed immediately after hearing that Singapore imposed a travel ban on all visitors coming from China on February 1.
Since October, Rincon had been preparing for auditions to Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and Guildford School of Acting. Both drama schools based in the UK were holding auditions on February 13 in Singapore for students applying from Asia. Rincon was one of them.
With the travel ban imposed, Rincon’s options were to stay in Shanghai or head home to Vancouver.
Rincon and her boyfriend, Antti Vuori, decided to wait a few days to see how the situation in China would play out. After no sign of the things getting better, they bought tickets to Vancouver departing on February 9. With no more direct flights from Shanghai left, the couple would travel through Taipei to get to Vancouver.
The decision to head back to Canada was also largely influenced by Rincon’s mother.
“Things were worsening and I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to leave China. I sent her voice messages everyday trying to convince them to come back to Vancouver as soon as possible,” says Mrs. Wang, Rincon’s mother.
Wang’s gut feelings were not far off.
On the morning of February 5, Vuori read on the news that Taiwan would be imposing a travel ban on those traveling from mainland China starting February 7. The couple immediately changed their flights to leave the following day, February 6, at 9:40 a.m.
Rincon and Vuori scrambled to pack their suitcases and arranged for Wallace and Napoleon to be looked after by the dog-sitting company that hired them.
The taxi ride to Pudong International Airport the following morning was silent and tense.
Rincon, Vuori and the taxi driver wore masks and latex gloves. In her backpack, Rincon carried alcohol spray, sanitization wipes, and a pack of Vitamin C.
Fifteen minutes before reaching the airport, Rincon received a text from June Yao Airlines. The text message read that anyone travelling to Taiwan on that day would be offered a full refund as a travel ban was already in place for travellers coming from mainland China.
Rincon says her heart froze. The couple discussed their options.
With the airport being less than 5km away, they decided to try their luck with the flight.
The check-in process for their flight to Taipei was surprisingly smooth. Along with all other travelers in masks, Rincon and Vuori had their temperature checked twice by airport staff in hazmat suits.
Before boarding their flight, Rincon and Vuori were told that there was a high chance that they would not be allowed to enter Taipei once the airplane landed. The other possibility was that they would have to self-quarantine for fourteen days once they arrived in Taipei.
The decision would be in the hands of the immigration officers in Taipei.
Struck with anguish, the couple proceeded to their gate. Their temperatures were checked once again by a flight attendant before boarding the plane.
“I was so nervous and nauseous that I was sweating through my latex gloves the entire flight,” says Rincon.
When the airplane landed at Taoyuan International Airport at 11:30 a.m., Rincon and Vuori exited the plane and lined up at immigration.
The immigration officer did not smile as he took their passports. He stated that Rincon and Vuori had been in China in the last two weeks and a travel ban had been imposed that day.
The couple was told to wait aside. With their passports in hand, the immigration officer got up from his seat and went to consult two other colleagues.
Rincon says she was holding her breath the entire time.
When the immigration officer came back, he stamped their passports and let them through.
“I think we were just incredibly lucky because there was some miscommunication on when the travel ban was being enforced. On the news, it said it would begin February 7. But airlines and airports were already beginning implementation on February 6. Honestly, I think if we had landed that evening instead of that morning, we would have been told to get on a plane back to Shanghai,” says Rincon.
Rincon and Vuori finally relaxed a bit for the next three days before their scheduled flight to Vancouver departing on February 9. Better yet, they were in for a treat as the city of Taipei was celebrating the Lantern Festival.
People on the streets of Ximending enjoyed large displays of bright red lanterns with live music in the background. Night market vendors sold snacks such as fried chicken steak, pearl milk tea, and stinky tofu. It seemed like everything here was back to normal, except for the fact that everyone was wearing masks.
“I never thought I would be saying this, but it was so nice to be around people again,” says Vuori about their time in Taipei.
On February 12, Rincon and Vuori boarded a plane to Vancouver.
“I’m incredibly grateful that we made it back to Vancouver. I still don’t know when I’ll be able to head back to Shanghai. I’ve been here in Vancouver for almost a month and things just seem to be escalating rather than getting better. I just heard the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife has COVID-19, the hockey game I was supposed to watch this weekend got cancelled due to COVID-19 precautions, and our province (British Columbia) has around 200+ cases of COVID-19 right now (as of March 20, 2020). There’s also a rumour that public transportation might be temporarily suspended in the city by the end of the month. It’s ironic that I escaped China to be safe in Canada, but it seems like things are getting worse here while they’re stabilising in China,” says Rincon.
Rincon and Vuori are currently staying in Vancouver until they receive further notice.