In Shanghai, I needed an emergency COVID test at 9:00pm. It was too easy.
After eight months in China it was finally time for me to leave the country, but one day before my flight, a lone case in Shanghai threatened to ground everything.
I was at my going away dinner with friends on a Friday night, the day before I was to travel to Guangzhou, and then connect onto a flight to Singapore. My visa in China was up, and I had to go.
In normal times, I would choose from the glut of direct flights between two of Asia’s biggest cities, but at this stage of the new normal, there was only four flights a week from all of China.
At the table, the small talk of the evening was of the solitary positive COVID case of a baggage handler at Shanghai Pudong Airport the day before.
What seemed a minor issue started to worry me. Before we ordered our drinks, reports were spreading that other cities were already mandating 14-day quarantine on travellers from Shanghai. A friend raised the flag that there could be problems when she mentioned that her boyfriend was not going to come through Shanghai in between business trips because he might struggle to leave.
By the time the Sukiyaki arrived at our table it was 8:00pm on Friday and my anxiety was peaking. My flight to Guangzhou was departing 7:00pm on Saturday, and my outbound flight for Singapore was 10:00am on Sunday morning. If Guangzhou brought in measures requiring a quarantine for Shanghai travellers, then I would be stuck.
Complicating everything, my visa expired on the day of my scheduled departure.
While my brain was happy to focus on the problem, I dragged it onto its feet and encouraged it to think of solutions. If the flight was not allowed to leave, then I would be granted an extension to my visa, and that would be a fate I would accept as being beyond my control. But, if I could show a recent negative test result, then perhaps the airport will allow me to leave and Guangzhou would receive me.
At 8:30pm I stepped out of dinner and called the hospital I usually go to, but they could only test me on Saturday, with results on the Sunday. I asked for a recommendation on a local hospital who could move more quickly, and they said to try Tongren.
I called, and after navigating the dial-prompt menu, was transferred to an operator at the emergency clinic.
Emergency trips to the hospital are never easy, but with the added challenge of communicating in a second language, at a hospital during a global pandemic, on a Friday night, with only two days left on my visa, I could not help but wonder if this could get any harder.
“If you come tonight, you can collect your results at 2pm tomorrow”, the operator said. Though his answer sounded straight forward, I had a few hurdles to jump through first.
I apologised to my friends for leaving my own dinner early, emptied my sake, and made haste for the hospital. It was 9:00pm.
On my short trip home to pick up my passport, the gravity of the hospital situation hit me. I could be there all night. Images of day-long traffic jams during Chinese New Year, and crowds inside the subway at rush hour started to play on my mind.
Friday night in Melbourne, my hometown, was the worst time to visit the emergency room. It was the end of the work week, people were out drinking, children’s sport was on, and the GP clinic was closed. The waiting room is awash with somebody that was all of us at one stage of our life. The teenager with the broken arm, the distressed, young parents with an infant roaring a deep, guttural cough. I imagined the Shanghai ER playing out the same way, with five times the crowd.
Tongren Hospital stood large in the suburban outskirts of Shanghai. It looked quiet and the lights in the windows were only partially lit. Any concerns I had of an inundated emergency ward began to lift.
I passed through a tarpaulin covered walk way where a security guard nonchalantly waived me through. He had probably seen a lot this year, and though I was new to the late night hospital experience, he was a seasoned pro.
To enter, I showed my green health QR code and explained why I was there.
A triage nurse sat at the ready. I had already said my script three times about who I was, what I was doing, and where I needed to go, and though I had now hit my stride, I was happy when the triage nurse stopped me mid-sentence.
“You were the one who called, the person travelling to Guangzhou”, he said. The triage nurse was the operator I had spoken to when I called from dinner. Familiarity in a hospital certainly helped calm my nerves. Looking around, any fears of an overflowing waiting room were eliminated.
That said, the testing could still take some time.
Before I could be tested, I had to complete some admin. I registered my details in the hospital system, then moved to another booth to pay, then onto a doctor to have my case lodged, and back again to pay for the test. All the way through, I was accompanied dutifully by the triage nurse, who did not need to shepherd me through the hospital, but chose to out of sense of duty for which I was very grateful.
After the admin was completed I came to the Covid test. The nurse was short, which was emphasised by her three-sizes-too-big PPE outfit that sagged behind her and dragged on the floor. I followed her as we wove through the maze like corridors of the hospital, and past the beds of old people on saline drips. After two rights, and three lefts, we came to the emergency exit.
The nurse pointed at a stool outside the door.
“Sit down”, she said, pulling out two swabs. “Have you had the test before?”
I would have nodded, but my head was already reclined and ready. “You must be getting good at these by now”, I said. She did not agree or disagree, but now I could see how her height was optimised. She was at the perfect level to test a seated patient.
She pulled out two swabs and hit all of the key markers on my nose and throat. I coughed from a place I did not often cough from, and instead of guiding me back inside, she gestured out towards the carpark.
“You can leave, your results will be ready at 2pm tomorrow.”
At first, I could not tell how much time had passed since I arrived at the hospital as there was not one single moment where I had the time to pull out my phone to distract myself. From speaking to the triage nurse, to having my brain adjusted by the swab, it was all one quick process.
I checked my phone, it was only 10:00pm.
The extension of my going away dinner was going away drinks at a local wine bar. By the grace of the Chinese hospital system, I was at the bar before the wine arrived at the table, ready to say a short and sweet farewell before my return in the new year.