Irish teacher in China: Students’ temperatures are checked seven times a day

‘After returning to Ireland, my temperature spiked. At St Vincent’s, I was escorted to an isolation room’

Bernard William Mackey grew up in north Tipperary. Born in South Africa, he moved to Ireland with his family at the age of three. He now lives in Tongxiang, in Zhejiang province, and works as a departmental head in an international education school for Chinese nationals, from kindergarten through to Leaving Certificate age

When did you leave Ireland?
I was asked if I was interested in interviewing for a school in Chengdu as I had previously taught English in Barcelona and Dublin. I'd never heard of Chengdu before, but the city of 18 million people in southwest China became my home in 2016, when I was 24 years old.

Where do you live now?
After two years I moved to eastern China, to a small city between Shanghai and Hangzhou. Although I loved the lifestyle and the community in Chengdu, I'd found the pollution difficult to manage, as I've asthma, so I took the opportunity to move to a school in a rural area.

You came to Ireland recently. What happened?
At the end of January my girlfriend and I went to visit Chengdu. While we were there we noticed that shops were beginning to close, often with official government letters and seals. Then the hotel informed us that we would need to check out two days early, as they had received orders to close.

My girlfriend, Anne, was due to return to Ireland and got the last flight out of Chengdu to Europe. Schools were told not to reopen after the new-year holiday, so I was in emergency online meetings with colleagues as we prepared to shift to online teaching with a weekend’s notice. I booked a same-day ticket back to Ireland via Shanghai, expecting to return to China a fortnight later when everything had blown over.

After returning to Ireland I self-isolated at a friend’s house in Sandymount in Dublin, as I thought it better not to be in contact with family. Three days later my temperature spiked. I walked to the nearest hospital, St Vincent’s, and was immediately escorted to an isolation room. There, doctors and nurses in personal protective equipment took samples and did tests. After a few hours I was brought upstairs to the infectious-disease ward.

Patients suspected of having Covid-19 were tested twice for certainty, and results were issued within 24 hours. Thankfully I tested negative for Covid-19, but positive for the flu. After three days I was discharged from hospital to recover at my friend’s house in Dublin, then between there and my family home in Tipperary for the rest of my time in Ireland.

What happened when you got back to China?
I returned to China at the end of March, a few days before the entry ban on foreigners came into force. The ban is ongoing. My flight landed in Shanghai, and after five hours of health checks I boarded a private bus (wearing the provided hazmat suit) and was taken to a government-sanctioned hotel and escorted upstairs by a police officer to start my 14 days of quarantine.

Two colleagues shared a bus with a confirmed case, and even though they tested negative four times they still needed 21 days of quarantine. Another colleague contracted the virus and she has just left quarantine, 10 weeks later.

I cried at a vending machine in rural Yunnan province after tasting the Kerrygold carton of milk it inexplicably contained

The government-sanctioned quarantine in China was in the school’s local city, Tongxiang. Any time I leave the local area now I must declare it, and if people travel on public transport to return to the local area they must do 48 hours of quarantine and two tests.

What is happening there now?
Life has mostly returned to normal here in Tongxiang. Students and teachers were required to wear masks at all times when schools reopened, six weeks ago, but now it is no longer compulsory. People are beginning to shake each other's hands again, though some still prefer the elbow. Taxi drivers and their passengers are expected to wear masks. Yesterday my driver smoked a cigarette on our trip.

Everyone is required to fill out daily health reports on an app, and this generates a QR code that you show to enter public places and use public transport. If you display any symptoms or have contact (inside the same shop, use the same train etc) with a confirmed case the QR code will change colour and you will be required to self-isolate or be tested.

Last week one of my teachers at the school entered that she had a blocked nose and headache in the app. The app code changed colour and she couldn't enter the school campus. After resting at home for one day and re-entering information, the app turned green again and she could return to work.

Local education-bureau regulations stipulate that we cannot travel outside the local area except by private car, unless we do 48 hours of quarantine upon return and take a blood and mouth swab test.

A friend stayed in Wuhan in her family apartment for the duration of the lockdown, which was 77 days

Are you frightened?
Some days I feel frightened and wash my hands like Lady Macbeth, and stay in my office or apartment all the time. On other days, especially when the sun is shining, I don't think twice about sharing food with friends at a restaurant.

Given my asthma and other underlying conditions, if I were in Ireland I would need to cocoon. Here there is the underlying sense that all reasonable precautions are taken and quality of life needs to return.

A friend of mine was in Wuhan when the city closed. She stayed there, in her family apartment, for the duration of the lockdown, which was 77 days. Now people are cautious and even afraid to gather.

What does your day look like now?
The general running of things is the same, but with extra precautions. Rather than a single temperature check in the morning for students, like before, they now have their temperature measured seven times every day. If anyone has a spiked temperature they are taken to the local hospital for an immediate blood test while their grade is isolated from the rest of the school community. Even with a negative result the student needs to return home for 48 hours.

Last week we needed to send nine students to hospital with elevated temperatures. The weather is hot, and students and teachers are stressed and tired, and not drinking enough water. We are doing extra lessons in the evenings and on Saturdays to make up for 11 weeks of online teaching. Other schools are extending their term through the summer.

What's it like being Irish in China?
Many local Chinese people have heard of Ireland, but what they have heard varies greatly. Sometimes music (Westlife and Riverdance), sometimes alcohol and sometimes beef. Often I get mistaken for German, as the Chinese for "Dublin" and "Berlin" are almost identical.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?
I'm used to living away from Ireland now, so there is not much I miss. I can buy Barry's tea and Guinness-flavour crisps at the import store. It is the small familiar things, though, that hit the hardest, even if they weren't particularly enjoyable. I miss the taste of my local tap water, the sound of the bus, the inside jokes.

I once cried at a vending machine in a village in rural Yunnan province after tasting the Kerrygold carton of milk it inexplicably contained. It is difficult having restricted movement here and being so far from loved ones in Ireland, who are also under movement restrictions. The distance feels real.