Guest Post #1 – Andrew Bishop on Travel in Asia During the Pandemic

Paul: Andrew Bishop moved his family during the pandemic from Hong Kong to Tokyo late last year. His story focuses on the differences in quarantining between Tokyo and Hong Kong at that time (entry/exit requirements for both locations have changed since this article was originally written). Though he is extremely lucky he is healthy and able to travel, the story shows that travelling during COVID-19 is certainly not what it used to be.

After nearly five years on assignment from Tokyo to Hong Kong, it was time to move the family back to our long-term home, Tokyo. In order to make it in time for the start of the new school year, in-person ideally, not virtual, we would move at the end of July. I would work from both Tokyo and Hong Kong through the end of this year and continue my duties from Tokyo in early 2021. The pandemic certainly complicated the relocation plan, but with some great support from my employer and its service providers, appropriate safety precautions, and good luck, we did it.

The flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo was so empty, it was as if we had a private 787. We took COVID-19 tests upon our arrival in Tokyo, and Immigration thoroughly reviewed our passports. Then we grabbed our bags and awaited our “coronavirus taxi,” a specially designated taxi service we were required to use instead of public transport.

The taxi took us back to our house in Tokyo, which had no furniture, to quarantine for two weeks. (We could not stay in a hotel or serviced flat at that time.) We told our boys that it was like “summer camping.” but without trees. With the help of some amazing neighbors, we were all set up and ready to take on the 14-day quarantine. Japan’s greatest strength is its social cohesion and sense of mutual trust and responsibility, which obligates everyone to abide by what is best for the community, so there is limited active tracking of your whereabouts during quarantine. It’s really just the honor system, and the neighbors are watching…..

During the day, we would mostly stay home and read, work, and play games, but we were still able to go out and to the parks (away from others, of course) and get much needed exercise and fresh air. This was a huge benefit. Food and other necessities were delivered, and Japan has a very strong delivery service infrastructure.

In mid-October, I needed to return to Hong Kong. Through the diligent precautionary efforts of the government and citizens, the city has done very well in responding to the pandemic. On October 18, I boarded a flight with about 40 others from Tokyo, mostly Japanese nationals working in Hong Kong, a few families returning home, and, believe it or not, a few people coming back from extended golf trips.

Upon arrival at HKG airport at 13:30, all passengers had to submit electronic health declarations, download a “StayHomeSafe” app, and meet with health officials. The officials then put electronic tags on us, using our phone and a wrist band to verify our location. We then proceeded to carry out saliva-based COVID-19 tests and were asked to wait in a designated area.

After an hour, we stood in a queue to board a bus that would take us to a designated holding center. (Passengers that land after 13:00 need to await their COVID-19 test results at an airport holding center.) After another hour of waiting, we finally boarded the bus at 17:30 and traveled to a hotel used by the government to house passengers. Each of us were given a room key and asked to stay in our assigned rooms until our test results were available. We were given no other information, except that if you tested positive, you had to remain at the holding center for 14 days.

I expected a short wait and a call with a negative test result, so I did not unpack. I waited. At about 19:30, I called the front desk and asked if I would get my result that night. “NO,” the operator barked, and hung up. Shortly afterwards, my room’s buzzer rang with dinner, which was a small lunch box with noodles (no sauce), a slice of fatty pork (not visually appetizing), and some mushy vegetables (frozen). Not very appealing and the taste was even less.

So, I decided to take the bold action of calling the front desk again and asked if I could have food delivered. The operator, shouted “NO, we are far too busy,” and hung up. I had to tough it out until morning, but I thought maybe this “detox” would be good for me, and I settled in for the night.

On Monday morning about 0700, I was able to see out a small window that some people were leaving. “Great,” I thought, “I will be out of here soon.” I was starving and, to be honest, it wasn’t the nicest place to stay. About noon, I received the call that my test was negative, and I was free to go to the hotel I had booked to quarantine for the next 13 days.

A general observation: These precautions and screenings work well when passenger volumes are low, but if the passenger volumes increase in any significant way, the infrastructure and COVID screening procedures in both Tokyo and Hong Kong will become quite painful for all involved, and it will take many more hours to get out of the airports because the airports’ infrastructure is all makeshift and just not set up to handle the new procedures that well.

At the hotel, the front desk staff were so kind, which was such a relief. “We will do everything to make your stay comfortable, but you can’t leave the room and our staff can’t directly interact with you and you will have no cleaning services for two weeks.” At the end of two weeks, we will give you a fresh room though.”

“Can I have food delivered?” I asked, “Yes,” she says. Hooray!

The hotel room was nice, but it is 10 feet wide by 22 feet long, and the windows don’t open, so there is no fresh air. By day seven of quarantine, it was getting very hard. I knew that if I tried leaving my room, the alarm around my wrist would go off and some officers and unpleasantness would come my way. Fortunately, I brought some survival gear: smart devices, yoga mat, food, coffee, teas, and books.

My kids called a lot and we had breakfast and dinner together virtually. Each night, I read to them before bed. Hong Kong is amazing in that you can pretty much get anything delivered through FoodPanda and Deliveroo. Thanks to my colleagues and friends around the world for Zooming with me and keeping my days filled with work and great conversations.

At midnight on October 31, I received the all clear and was free to go outside. Sunday morning, I soaked up the sunshine, went for a run and a hike, and took in as much fresh air as possible.

It’s been a very tough year for so many, always thankful for my family, health and those at my company being part of my life.  – Stay positive, resilient, and focused. I’m reminded by something a Tokyo neighbour said before I left: “Even though you may seem to be going through hard times, something will change, and things will get better”. (石の上にも三年 in Japanese)

Andrew is Senior Vice President, Human Resources – Asian and Australia Markets, and Chief of Staff, Asian Markets at Reinsurance Group of America. You can read my recent interview with Andrew here.

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