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As Imported Cases Rise In China, Travelers Required To Isolate

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to head to China now, which now has more new coronavirus cases from travelers entering the country than through local infection. Major Chinese cities are making anyone arriving from abroad isolate for two weeks. And as NPR's Emily Feng reports, one group is now caught up by these restrictions - Chinese students studying abroad.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Do I stay or do I go - the choice now faced by the more than 660,000 Chinese students overseas, according to China's education ministry. Zeng Yinzhou, a junior at Ohio's Miami University, decided to take a risk and come back home, flying back into Beijing early in mid-March.

ZENG YINZHOU: (Through interpreter) I voluntarily told them that I had a cough. You can't cover up something like this. You have to be truthful.

FENG: More and more Chinese residents are returning home as cases drop, but potentially are bringing the virus with them. There are now more imported cases of the virus in China than those transmitted domestically. So major Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, now mandate that everyone, including foreigners entering China, quarantine at a central location, usually a hotel, with the visitor paying the cost. Zeng is now shut into a Beijing hotel paying a little less than $100 U.S. a night.

YINZHOU: (Through interpreter) If I had the virus in a state in the U.S., I'd just be waiting to die. In China, the treatment is more satisfactory.

FENG: The situation has flipped. In January, residents left China in droves as the outbreak overwhelmed local health care systems. Now China is one of the few countries with its outbreak under control, so people are flying back to China, where they say they feel safer - so many people, in fact, that Xiaotangshan, a former treatment facility built during the SARS outbreak and reopened during the COVID-19 outbreak, is being retooled yet again, this time to hold travelers entering Beijing from abroad.

The Beijing Health Commission has told students abroad not to come back.

WILLIAM CHANG: Both ways have their own risks.

FENG: William Chang is a junior at Duke University. He's wrestling with whether to return home to Jiangsu province or stay at Duke. He says students like him are worried less about the two weeks' hotel quarantine in China and more about the uncertainty of resuming their studies.

CHANG: When they go back to the United States, the United States may have, like, a different policy - maybe don't allow, like, the Chinese students to go back.

FENG: Raymond Song is a junior at Harvard University. He's now into his third quarantine - first after a vacation to Tokyo, a second after returning to Harvard and a third two-week isolation period when he returned to Beijing in early March. He was taken off the plane to a central processing facility, assessed by officials in hazmat suits then put on a special bus to go into quarantine.

RAYMOND SONG: So essentially, it's a closed circle, meaning that you didn't wander off into other streets or something.

FENG: Raymond is lucky. He flew in right before the hotel quarantine policy began, so he's isolated at home. But he says he'd do a hotel quarantine if that's what was required of him.

SONG: More people from China or from across the world are more affected by this outbreak than my life.

FENG: So, like many Chinese people, Song feels the inconveniences of quarantines, however invasive, are worth it as long as they help other people.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "OCCASIONAL MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.