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British man gets special quarantine treatment in Shanghai; locals are appalled

A British man who came back to Shanghai after traveling abroad but refused to go to a government-approved coronavirus quarantine facility has come under intense fire after the local government made an exception for him — asking his wife and toddler to leave their apartment so that he could practice self-isolation at home.

Per the Southern Metropolis Daily (in Chinese), a newspaper based in Guangzhou, on March 14, before the man’s flight landed in Shanghai, the neighborhood committee overseeing the residential compound of the man’s home received orders to place him in quarantine. The man’s wife and mother-in-law said that they preferred the man to be isolated from them to limit infection risks to the couple’s two-month-old baby. But when the committee officials asked the man to undergo quarantine in a hotel, he refused to do so.

In an attempt to change the man’s mind, local officials reportedly explained the importance of quarantine to him and assured him that the living conditions in isolation facilities were better than he imagined. The man’s wife also tried to convince him that going to a quarantine facility was the most responsible behavior for the sake of his child. However, all of these efforts failed as the man insisted on quarantining himself at home.

Following more than six hours of negotiation, the man’s stubbornness forced the committee to come up with an unusual solution: They asked his family to live in their relatives’ apartment in the same compound so that the man could stay at his own place.

According to the latest coronavirus guidelines issued by Shanghai health authorities on March 17, all travelers — both Chinese citizens and foreigners — need to complete 14 days of isolation at designated quarantine facilities after returning from a list of coronavirus-impacted countries. As the Southern Metropolis Daily noted, the three countries that the man visited before returning to Shanghai — Germany, France, and Switzerland —were all on the mandatory quarantine list.

Amid concerns over a second wave of the deadly virus driven by people importing it from foreign countries, the story has prompted a wave of criticism from social media users. “What a selfish and self-centered man! I don’t expect foreigners to contribute to China’s efforts to eradicate the disease as long as they don’t cause trouble, but this man failed as a husband and a father!” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

The news came amid the heightening worry over the growing threat posed by imported infections in China. According to the Guardian, while the number of domestic cases has been in steady decline since the beginning of March, China now has to battle an increasing number of infections imported from overseas. As legitimate concerns over imported cases grow, a string of news stories about public-health-threatening behavior by people arriving from abroad has triggered an outpouring of anger among the public. Commenting on the Australian Chinese woman who was fired by Bayer after violating Beijing’s quarantine rules, a large number of Chinese internet users expressed profound disappointment at the Beijing police, saying that the woman faced no legal consequences, because of her identity as a foreigner.

Driven by the same thinking, a fair share of outraged internet users also slammed the committee in Shanghai for making an exception for the British man, arguing that the story was another example of foreigners receiving exceptional treatment. A commenter on Weibo wrote (in Chinese), “Shanghai should have sent him back to his home country when he refused to comply with Chinese rules. Apparently in Shanghai, foreigners are allowed to act above the law and the local government caters to their needs unconditionally.”

In response to the widespread denunciation, Chén Fèngtāo 陈奉涛, the chief secretary of the neighborhood committee, stressed that the committee’s decision was in line with the quarantine regulations imposed by the health authorities in Shanghai. “He had gone through a few checks at the airport. The fact that he could make it out of the airport means that he showed no coronavirus-related symptoms,” Chen told (in Chinese) the Southern Metropolis Daily, adding that the controversy was mainly caused by “miscommunication” between the government and the public.

Trying to turn the tide of negative comments, Chen promised that the committee would “pacify” the residents living near the British man by properly addressing their safety concerns. Meanwhile, in order to balance out the negative coverage, several news articles about Chen’s official response highly praised the neighborhood committee. “The considerate measure has made many people returning from overseas feel touched,” per the Xinmin Evening News (in Chinese), a Shanghai-based local newspaper.

Unsurprisingly, the tone-deaf, awkwardly positive coverage further exacerbated the public’s anger and skepticism. “You had the option to just ‘pacify’ the man, but instead you decided to put the whole public at risk. So his personal preferences weigh more than the public’s interest?” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

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Jiayun Feng

Jiayun was born in Shanghai, where she spent her first 20 years and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Fudan University. Interested in writing for a global audience, she attended the NYU Graduate School of Journalism for its Global & Joint Program Studies, which allowed her to pursue a journalism career along with her interest in international relations. She has previously interned for Sixth Tone and Shanghai Daily.

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