How overseas Shanghainese go through outbreak

Li Fei
Many Chinese living and working overseas are contemplating coming back to China as the coronavirus spreads. Here are interviews with two locals under quarantine.
Li Fei

Novel coronavirus has been spreading rapidly across the world, with Western countries currently at the center of the crisis. For Chinese aboard, it's the time to choose whether or not to come back to China. 

A 30-year-old Shanghainese working in Milan resigned due to discrimination during the outbreak, while a 66-year-old Shanghai-native hospital assistant working in Sydney decided to stay after a colleague tested positive for COVID-19.

Discrimination prompted return

Douzi, 30, a Shanghainese working in Milan for seven years in sales for a luxury brand at Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, decided to come back to Shanghai two weeks ago.

As of March 20, the cumulative number of novel coronavirus cases reached 41,035 in Italy, making it the hardest-hit country outside China. The capital of the Lombardy region, Milan is the center of the pandemic in Italy.

“For me, the reason why I decided to return was not just the epidemic, but discrimination on Chinese during the coronavirus outbreak in Milan,” she told Shanghai Daily.

How overseas Shanghainese go through outbreak
Ti Gong

The quarantine hotel Douzi stayed at

Q: What impressed you the most during the epidemic in Italy?

A: On January 25, the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, one of my colleagues was helping a Chinese guest. After the guest left, our manager said that she should not provide coffee or tea to “that kind of person.”

I was in the office, and when I came downstairs, I saw they both seemed in a bad mood.

Then the manager called us two Chinese employees over and said that due to the coronavirus outbreak, we could not provide coffee and drinks to foreign guests because we didn’t disinfect.

My colleague got angry and said, "That's not what you said before. You were just aiming at us Chinese."

Although the store manager did apologize later, my colleague did not accept his apology and decided to resign, and so did I.

Q: Before you left, were there any preventive measures against the coronavirus outbreak in Milan?

A: During whole February, Italians didn't really care about the epidemic. No one wore masks, and they still did cheek kissing and had dinner together every day. The head office sent us an e-mail saying that this was a normal flu and that we didn't need to wear a mask.

Actually we are not allowed to wear a mask at the store, until the coronavirus widely spread in the country. Thousands of people were infected, but N95 masks were still not allowed. I was the only one wearing mask in the whole store, so I had to take it off.

At that time, most of the companies in Milan were starting to work from home, but our store was still open until the northern provinces went under lockdown.

Q: When did you decide to come back to Shanghai? How was the trip?

A: I bought an air ticket on March 2 for a flight on March 5. Since the outbreak in China, I definitely felt hostility. When I was walking down the street, people near me just walked away, covered their nose and mouth with a scarf or pulled up their turtleneck. On a trip to the pharmacy, a woman saw me and immediately wrapped her baby in her coat. Wherever I sit, there is an empty space around me.

At the end of January, direct flights between China and Italy were all canceled. I transferred in Moscow. Body temperatures were taken every time you get off the plane, and a long sponge carpet is laid on the floor for disinfection during the transit at Moscow airport. After landing at Pudong airport, 150 of passengers from the Lombardy and Veneto districts of Italy, including me, were quarantined in a hotel.

Q: How is your quarantined life in Shanghai?

A: The quarantine hotel is clean and safe, the staff are kind and the meals are great. Fortunately, none of the passengers on my flight have any symptoms at present. 

How overseas Shanghainese go through outbreak
Ti Gong

Douzi's lunch at the quarantine hotel

Stay on in Sydney waiting for test results

Amy, 66, a Shanghai-native hospital assistant working in food service at Ryde Hospital in Sydney, was waiting for the results of her test for COVID-19, after one of her colleagues tested positive. She was asked to do self-quarantine from March 16. She told Shanghai Daily today that her test shows negative.

Ryde Hospital is one of the designated hospitals for COVID-19 treatment in Sydney, and also a testing center. The first coronavirus death in Australia, a 92-year-old patient, was at the hospital. The first confirmed case among staff was on March 3, when a doctor was infected.

According to, a Chinese nurse at Ryde Hospital turned to the media for help on March 10, saying the hospital didn’t allow nurses to wear masks during the coronavirus outbreak.

Amy told Shanghai Daily, “our hospital didn’t allow us to wear a mask, and most of my Australian colleagues thought masks are not necessary, except Asian nurses and me.”

How overseas Shanghainese go through outbreak
Ti Gong

The letter Amy received after being tested for COVID-19 in Sydney. She told Shanghai Daily today that she tests negative for the virus.

Q: Why were you asked to self-quarantine?

A: Last Sunday, after 13 working days, I asked for a break, surprisingly my manager agreed to give me two days off. This made me feel a little happy. However, the next day, March 16, I received a call from the hospital, saying one of my colleagues tested positive for COVID-19. We worked together for four days before that day, and also had coffee and lunch together as usual. I was asked to do self-quarantine since March 16.

Q: Tell your story of COVID-19 testing.

A: On the first night of my self-quarantine, I felt a little shortness of breath and cough. I am over 60 years old. What I feared most is that older people have a much higher death rate for COVID-19.

I called my general practitioner, and he told me I should call the test center, and gave the number. I tried over 100 times, it never got through.

I went to my hospital, asked for a test, they said current NSW Health advice is to only get tested for COVID-19 if you have a fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath: Only people who meet this criteria will be tested.

Because of my insistence, I finally got a test the next day. Now I am waiting for the result.

Q: When you knew your colleague tested positive for COVID-19, were you scared?

A: At first I was, but after talking to her on the phone yesterday, I feel better. She only got mild symptoms, and she wasn’t hospitalized. "I prefer to stay at home, it’s more comfortable. Anyway, the hospital doesn't have a specific cure at the moment," she told me.

Q: Did the nurses have personal protective equipment at Ryde Hospital?

A: The hospital carried out strict PPE (personal protective equipment) management, and the ward for COVID-19 is divided into three areas: yellow, green and blue. Yellow area is for the patients with common flu symptoms, green is for the suspected patients, and blue is for the confirmed cases.

Only nurses entering the blue ward are allowed to use PPE, which is a disposable mask and a disposable protective clothing thinner than a plastic bag. After leaving the ward, they need to remove the PPE and work with other unprotected nurses.

Q: How is the daily life like during the current coronavirus outbreak in Sydney?

A: There is no shortage of daily necessities, say food and drinks, but it is difficult to buy toilet paper, supermarket staff told me. The materials for toilet paper is said probably the same as the mask, which is difficult to import now.

Some of my Chinese friends chose to go back to China, but I decided to stay. At least it is relatively sparsely populated here, and I am used to it. If I go back to Shanghai, I have to pay my own expenses for medical treatment, which is an important consideration at my age.

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