CHINESE EXPATS LOOK TO HOMELAND AS ESCAPE FROM EUROPE’S CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

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Sally Yan, who has lived in Switzerland for 13 years, left her home in Zurich over the weekend to wait out the coronavirus pandemic in what she believes to be a safer location: Shanghai.

“In China, fighting the virus is under control, and getting business back to normal is the top priority,” said Yan, co-founder of a fintech company called Drivetide Capital, days before her departure. “In Switzerland, it is just one of the things to be solved.”

While the number of new cases reported in China has dropped off in recent days, infections in the rest of the world continue to surge. The World Health Organization has labeled Europe as the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy has suffered the biggest outbreak in the region—more than 24,000 cases as of Monday and at least 1,800 deaths.

“China’s response was very rapid, highly centralized, well-controlled, and well-coordinated,” says Rifat Atun, professor of global health systems at Harvard University. “It gave time for European countries to adequately prepare for a response. Unfortunately, countries did not use this time wisely to prepare, and I fear Europe has done too little too late.”

Europe’s new playbook 

The Chinese government was widely criticized in the West for its heavy-handed response to the outbreak. Now some European countries are following Beijing’s example, using mass quarantines, transportation bans, and country-wide school closures.

“Many European countries have shifted their approach and now appear to be taking a page out of China’s playbook in their responses to coronavirus,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Spain announced a nationwide lockdown Saturday, and France closed all nonessential businesses, including cafes, restaurants, shops, and movie theaters. Germany restored border controls with neighboring countries. The United Kingdom has avoided broad, disruptive measures so far.

Switzerland, too, is stepping up efforts to confront the escalating health crisis. Until recently, the government relied on an information campaign about hygiene and social distancing along with a ban on big events. But on Friday, the Federal Council closed schools and universities, restricted gatherings to less than 100 people, and authorized border controls. While Switzerland isn’t a member of the European Union, it belongs to the region’s passport-free Schengen Area.

“The challenge in Europe is that the responses are highly fragmented,” Atun said. “Each country has its own separate and sometimes conflicting measures. There is no central coordination.”

China on the cards 

With the epidemic in China apparently subsiding and with life returning to normal, Chinese expats and their families are looking to their home country as an escape from what they fear is just the start of the crisis in Europe. In Switzerland, more than 2,000 people have tested positive to coronavirus and 14 people have died. And those are just the severe cases as officials are no longer testing people with mild symptoms.

Yan is from Huangshi, a city just an hour’s drive away from Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated. Her mother is still in quarantine. The decision to pack her bags for Shanghai, her husband’s hometown, did not come lightly.

“It was very hard. I’ve been thinking about it for quite a few days, back and forth,” she said.

Martin Hedman, a 61-year-old resident of the canton Vaud and a Swedish citizen, just renewed his family visa to China, allowing him to stay there for three months at a time. He and his wife, who is from Suzhou, west of Shanghai, took their 9-year-old daughter out of school days before the nationwide shutdown announced Friday. Although he welcomes the new measures, a move to China remains “a serious option.”

“A month ago, we were sending breathing masks to our family in China,” Hedman said. “Now they are sending them back to us.”

Ling C., a Chinese national and communications freelancer, who asked that her full name not be used, has been checking flights to Shanghai nearly every day. Although she has lived in Zurich for six years, she says a count of 10,000 coronavirus cases in Switzerland could prompt her to go back for a few months.

The door may be closing fast. Starting Monday, anyone arriving from abroad to Beijing will be transferred to city quarantine facilities for 14 days.

Yan, who arrived in Shanghai on Saturday, isn’t abandoning Switzerland in its time of need. While in China, she will be helping her company use data analytics to source medical supplies such as masks, protective suits, and gloves for Europe.

“Just staying in Switzerland, I could not do much if people have to quarantine themselves at home due to the virus,” she said. “Here I can definitely add more value.”

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