Tim Fan was so close to getting home. For the first time since before the pandemic, he was on a plane to China, looking forward to seeing his family and celebrating his recent graduation from a college in Washington state.
But halfway into the 12-hour flight from Seattle to Shanghai in late December, the Delta Air Lines plane made a sudden U-turn back to the United States. The airline cited burdensome new disinfection procedures at the airport in Shanghai, which Chinese officials disputed.
Almost two months later, Fan is still in Seattle, his journey home hindered by a lack of flights, exorbitant ticket prices and his own Covid-19 infection. Chinese rules prevent him from entering the country until well after he is recovered.
While he waits, he is paying $2,400 a month for an Airbnb, four times more than his rent while in school. This month he spent the Lunar New Year, China’s most important holiday, separated from his family in Shenzhen.
“My heart is numb and has no feeling,” said Fan, 22. “I’ve reached my lowest in terms of luck.”
Two years into the pandemic, as much of the world is easing restrictions, students like Fan still face great difficulty in traveling home to China. The country’s strict “zero-Covid” strategy includes closing its borders to almost all foreigners, but it creates obstacles for Chinese nationals as well.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Chief among them is the paltry number of flights. The number of international flights to China is down to 200 a week, 2.2 percent of pre-pandemic levels, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said last year.
That is partly because China has a policy of suspending both domestic and foreign airlines from certain routes for up to four weeks if too many passengers test positive for the virus upon arrival. In recent weeks, China has suspended 44 inbound flights operated by U.S. carriers, prompting U.S. officials to suspend the same number of China-bound flights run by Chinese airlines.
Aya Li, a travel agent in Beijing, said ticket prices had also skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. A one-way economy-class ticket from Los Angeles to Shanghai is now $1,600 to $3,000 or more, she said, compared with about $630 for a round-trip economy-class ticket two years ago.
“Nowadays, it is definitely more difficult for Chinese to come back,” Li said.
It is even more complicated for those who have had Covid-19. Before boarding the plane, all travelers to China must apply at a Chinese embassy or consulate for a green “health code,” submitting multiple negative test results. Travelers who were previously infected cannot apply for the health code for at least 14 days after testing negative. They are also required to prove they have recovered with an X-ray or CT scan.
On WeChat, a messaging app widely used in China and by overseas Chinese, an advice group for recovering Covid-19 patients trying to return from the U.S. is approaching 400 members.
Kelly Tang, a freshman at Boston University, said she worries that her trip from Seattle to Beijing in May could be wrecked by a flight cancellation or positive test result. The month before, she said, is when she’ll start “panicking” and crossing her fingers.
During winter break, Tang visited a friend in Seattle, then returned to Boston to finish it alone in a hotel, where the university had put her up since dorms were closed.
“I felt a bit lonely because I didn’t get to celebrate Christmas back home,” said Tang, who is from Beijing.
Like Tang, Ansley Leung, a college junior in Boston, said traveling home to China over winter break was “just not feasible.”
Price is one reason: The cost of a round-trip ticket from Boston to Shanghai, Leung’s hometown, can exceed $10,000. But another is China’s quarantine requirements for international arrivals, which are among the strictest in the world.
After landing in Shanghai, Leung would have had to quarantine at a government-designated hotel for 14 days, followed by another seven days at home. That would have left her only about a week to see family and friends before heading back to school.
Quarantine requirements have also discouraged Mo, a doctoral candidate in Arizona who hasn’t been to his hometown of Zhengzhou since the summer of 2019. His summer job as a research associate means he gets no more than two weeks off per year, less than the time he would have to spend in quarantine upon returning to China.
“I do miss my family and a lot of things: my friends, food, the convenience and all that,” he said. “It’s been really frustrating.”
Though it is struggling with an outbreak that has left whole cities in lockdown, China has reported far fewer virus cases (125,000) and deaths (4,636) than many other countries. But Mo said he felt the zero-Covid strategy had been more restrictive than effective.
“I do feel like this is [China’s] chance to show off their power of controlling their people. They have been doing a lot of things rather than controlling the Covid itself,” said Mo, who asked not to be identified by his full name while criticizing Chinese policies. “They’re restricting you going out, restricting you in getting a passport or a visa for going abroad. I don’t really agree with it.”
Chinese government advisers say zero-Covid is still the best strategy for the country, and it is not expected to change anytime soon.
Aside from practical hurdles, Chinese students returning from abroad face another challenge: backlash from fellow citizens. In defending the zero-Covid strategy, Chinese state media have emphasized the high case numbers and death tolls in the U.S. and other countries, leading some Chinese to view foreigners and returning students as a threat to public health.
Leung and Tang said Chinese social media is filled with comments saying that students abroad should “never come back” or accusing them of “bringing back germs.”
“We’re like a burden for them,” Tang said. “I understand that. They don’t want any extra pressure from us. But also think about the people who haven’t been home, been able to see their parents, for years.”
Fan, meanwhile, is spending his days in Seattle exercising to boost his immune system. After receiving a negative test result in late January, he paid $4,800 to secure another flight to Shanghai on Feb. 17. But he knows that, too, is no guarantee.
“Worry does not bring you anything, and I also have no choice,” Fan said of his upcoming flight. “Let’s just hope for the best.”