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Trip to paradise becomes a rapid return to reality

By Peter Welton | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-04 09:39
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A health worker holds a thermometer as she waits to screen travellers for signs of the coronavirus at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana, on Jan 30, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

Just over a week ago, I was sitting on a hotel balcony at 6:30 am watching the sun rise over the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand at the start of the Spring Festival holiday.

As palm trees swayed gently in the breeze, early-morning risers were already claiming prime spots on sun loungers around the swimming pool. As the first guests headed to breakfast, beach vendors began to set out their wares.

This was the scene in Hua Hin, a town nestling between rolling hillsides and the coast, just under a four-hour drive south of the Thai capital Bangkok. The place is a longtime favorite of mine.

Swapping the wintry chill of Beijing for daytime temperatures of around 30 C, life was idyllic, with work as a senior copy editor at China Daily put on hold for just over a week, or so it seemed.

However, with the scale of the coronavirus outbreak back in China escalating each day, worries soon began to replace vacation contentment.

With the prospect of the World Health Organization declaring the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern earlier than it did, there was the risk of flights being canceled and of my being left stranded.

Many Chinese visitors I chatted to around the swimming pool shared these concerns and said they would try to return home as soon as possible.

I headed off to Bangkok, where it took a day to arrange a change of flight back to Beijing.

Having lived and worked in Hong Kong throughout the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003 without wearing a surgical mask, I knew this would not be an option this time, so I visited a pharmacy to buy some. Supplies were already being rationed.

I was in good company in the line at the Air China check-in desk, as all my fellow travelers were masked up, along with the airport staff members.

Our appearance clearly worried people using other airlines, with some giving us strange looks and a wide berth. Several children even ran away screaming.

The journey home required five temperature checks from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport to the China Daily compound, along with the completion of health forms.

On the flight, which was only half full, I chatted to a number of people about the outbreak. We were all worried.

Arriving back at China Daily at 2:30 am, and a final temperature check from the guard on duty, I made my way to the apartment and bed.

With a weeklong quarantine period ordered, I am not only unable to go to the office to work on this major fast-developing news story, but also can have no physical contact with colleagues.

A visit to the local supermarket on Friday to buy food proved uneventful.

There were ample stocks, but with many people still away on the extended holiday, the place was largely empty.

For now, it's a case of sitting it out at home working remotely and armed with an extensive collection of books and DVDs.

Unfortunately, one of my favorites, the cult 1960s British television series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, lies trapped in the attic of a friend's house somewhere on the outskirts of London.

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