Covid testing queue
Photo Credit: VCG

After Covid, Another Kind of Isolation

Months after recovery, some former Covid-19 patients struggle with job discrimination, dating stigma, and even separate testing queues

Ever since Shi Wanqing contracted Covid-19 in April, every test she’s taken for the virus has been an ordeal.

“You need your own tube?” a Covid tester in Shanghai repeated loudly back to Shi on one occasion in June, over a month after Shi had recovered from her infection, and weeks after the city’s strict lockdown measures had been lifted. “You were in a shelter hospital before?” the tester questioned again. Her voice carried to the line of people also waiting for a test and Shi, who asked to use a pseudonym for this piece, remembers hearing whispers of concern and seeing at least one person behind her take a step backwards after overhearing.

Shanghai regulations mandate that residents must have a negative test result no more than 72 hours old to enter public venues like shops, offices, and public transport. For most it is a routine inconvenience, but Shi’s history of infection means she often must join a separate queue and endure extra scrutiny and embarrassing, awkward, and traumatizing interactions with testers and fellow residents.

Shi, a 35-year-old manager working in a Sino-foreign tourism company, had left medical isolation in a makeshift Covid-19 hospital on May 3, but Shanghai government rules meant she was still required to use a single sampling tube, rather than the standard batch of 10, in regular nucleic acid testing (for fear of a “Covid-19 rebound” or retesting positive which would affect others’ PCR test results in a mixed sampling).

“In the makeshift hospital, we were always told, especially by the notices stuck on the wall every few meters, that we would be the safest group [in terms of the immunity to coronavirus] within months after we recover from the disease. This is a scientific fact that has been assured by the nation,” says Shi.

“But having left the hospital, everything is completely different: we face discrimination daily,” she tells TWOC.

Shi's bed in the makeshift hospital

Shi’s bed in the makeshift Covid-19 hospital where she lived for around a month (Shi Wanqing)

According to Our World in Data, a research organization based at the UK’s University of Oxford, more than 988,000 people—that is, about 7 out of every 10,000 people—had been diagnosed with Covid-19 on the Chinese mainland by September 27, 2022. As the country continues to deploy strict control measures to prevent the spread of the virus, and the vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people have neither been infected nor know anyone who has had the virus, those who have been infected face stigma and discrimination in everything from regular Covid testing and employment opportunities, to dating prospects and purchasing tickets for sports events, months or even years after their recoveries.

In addition to being singled out during regular nucleic acid testing, Shi tells TWOC that her company suspended her from working onsite for two months before she was eventually allowed to return to her office at the end of July.

She understands her company’s caution, which she thinks stemmed from local government regulations that call for those who contract the virus to stay away from their workplace for three months. This is especially important as they work in the tourism industry, which involves travel and the risk of outbreaks. However, she is exasperated that people still see her as a potential source of infection.

Shi tells TWOC she is at least grateful she didn’t get laid off or receive a pay cut after her diagnosis, something that other former patients or even hospital volunteers have faced.

Na Wenhao, a 40-year-old from Harbin, Heilongjiang province, has struggled to find formal long-term employment since he worked building makeshift Covid-19 hospitals in Jilin province during an outbreak there in March this year. Na contracted Covid-19 while in Jilin and underwent a month of quarantine before returning to Harbin. He tells TWOC that he tried looking for jobs in two factories in Harbin in early June and mid-July, but was rejected by each immediately once the HR manager learned of his record of infection.

Na recalls that during one job interview, he filled in a form showing his previous employment over the past year. The HR manager reviewed the resume carefully and checked with Na if he had been infected by Covid after they saw Na’s work experience in the makeshift hospital.

“I said yes,” says Na, “Then I was told that I was disqualified for the job.” He adds that getting the job should have been a formality and he saw the HR manager accept other applicants without any questions. The manager didn’t give him a concrete reason for not hiring him, but Na is convinced it was due to his infection history.

Shi suffered anxiety and trauma after spending time in the makeshift Covid-19 hospital (Shi Wanqing)

Shi suffered anxiety and trauma after spending time in the makeshift Covid-19 hospital (Shi Wanqing)

Before building hospitals in Jilin, Na worked in an electronics factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, but now he can only find gig work on construction sites where the turnover rate is high and nobody asks about his infection history. Na earns 200 to 300 yuan a day working 13-hour shifts, barely enough to cover his family’s daily expenses. This is similar to factory wages, but Na feels he has lost access to other benefits such as health insurance, accommodation, and canteen meals provided by a full-time factory job. A factory job would also provide more job and wage security in the face of the ongoing pandemic, as intermittent Covid lockdowns can deprive him of work opportunities on construction sites at any time.

Shi and Na’s struggles are not unique. For example, in May, a story surfaced of a Chinese student who fled wartime Ukraine but lost her newly found job at a school in Henan province due to her infection history. Then, in July, media latched onto the plight of Afen, an unemployed and homeless woman living in the restrooms of Shanghai Hongqiao railway station, who apparently couldn’t get a job due to her infection history.

It isn’t just employment where those with previous infections have faced prejudice: blind date platforms have checked users’ infection history and barred those who admit having had the virus, and in August Dalian Professional Football Club, a team in China’s top soccer division, barred those with infection histories from buying tickets to their matches. A backlash online saw the club back down on their decision days later.

State media outlets and government have reacted to these stories by reiterating rules that have been in place since 2020 that forbid employers from terminating employees due to their infection history. On August 10, the Ministry of Human Resource and Social Security and the Supreme People’s Court together issued a notice stating that employers must not refuse to hire recovered patients on the grounds that they have been previously infected. They also stated employers are not allowed to inquire about the nucleic acid test results of workers except as required for pandemic prevention and control.

But though the law is officially on the side of former Covid sufferers when it comes to employment, many factories have claimed they are between a rock and a hard place, as a single case on their premises could cause the local government suspend their operations. This means that if they hire a recovered patient, and this person tests positive again, factory bosses risk losing weeks of revenue.

Many recovered patients also face discrimination and stigma from relatives and acquaintances in their daily lives. Na tells TWOC he hasn’t told his wife and parents that he contracted Covid, and he never reveals his infection history to anyone in his hometown. He recalls that when he returned to Harbin from Jilin along with some of his colleagues, news quickly spread around town that 90 of the 160 workers on his construction team had been infected previously. Many people, including his relatives, asked Na if he was one of the infected, which he denied, fearing the repercussions: Na says one of his colleagues admitted his previous infection, and now even the people he used to call friends won’t speak to him.

“Those of us who have been infected know it’s not a big deal. But for those who have never experienced it, they step away from you whenever they meet you,” says Na.

Shi’s parents, from a small city in Hubei province, worried that their family would become the subject of local gossip if they revealed their daughter’s Covid-19 infection, so they kept it secret from other relatives and friends. Shi’s mother, after watching videos online showing recovered patients struggling to find jobs or suffering reinfection, told Shi not to return home during the National Day holiday in October. She is anxious that her daughter would be put into quarantine when she arrives home, and perhaps lose her job in Shanghai as a result of being unable to come back work; or face discrimination once her infection history is revealed.

Shi agreed to stay away. But she is also afraid she is losing a precious chance to see her mother, who is battling late-stage cancer: “If we didn’t have so much discrimination against recovered patients in our society, my mom wouldn’t feel [afraid]. Then maybe I could see my mom this holiday,” Shi tells TWOC.

Shi reveals she has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder since being released from the makeshift hospital where she had a traumatic experience of crude living conditions, strict management of her movement, and no privacy, including being stared at by male patients and not being able to lock the restroom. The discrimination she has been through since has further harmed her mental health. Shi says that being barred from going to the company and working from home alone has hindered her recovery process, as she later realized that having face-to-face communication and connection with her colleagues brings positive mental health benefits.

Worrying that they may be discriminated against or treated unequally once their Covid-positive history is disclosed, many recovered patients choose to remain silent about their infection, making it harder for them to discuss their trauma or raising public awareness. While specific mental health hotlines for Covid-19-related support have proliferated since the pandemic spread in 2020, they often only survive in a city for the duration of the severe outbreak in that locality, and are wound down once lockdowns end and the outbreak is brought under control, leaving little targeted support for former Covid-19 sufferers in the long term.

When Shi tried to make an appointment for counseling at Shanghai Mental Health Center, she was told by a doctor that the center has seen a surge in demand for therapy services since Shanghai’s months-long lockdown and the average waiting period for a patient to get a consultation stands at six months to one year. According to Shi, there are more openings in private clinics, but the cost, perhaps 2,000 yuan a session, is unaffordable for many patients like her.

Both Shi and Na also tell TWOC that they have long Covid symptoms such as coughing, pneumothorax, fatigue, and weak limbs. But, worrying that she would be placed in quarantine again, Shi refuses to see a doctor about these long-term effects on her body. Na did seek medical help, without telling the doctor about his infection history.

Since July, as the plight of recovered patients like Afen gained more public attention, authorities including the Shanghai government, Chinese Primer Li Keqiang, the Ministry for Human Resource and Social Welfare, and the Supreme People’s Court have vowed to punish those who discriminate against people who have had Covid-19 and ordered employers to amend their hiring practices.

Shanghai also updated its health code system so that it only shows a person’s Covid-19 testing history for the past two weeks, rather than two months as in the old system, in the hope this will prevent employers from knowing a person’s prior infection history.

However, Shi and Na are yet to fully escape the stigma. From August, Shi has been able to join mixed sampling for nucleic acid testing as, according to the Shanghai government’s regulations, those who have a history of Covid infection can rejoin batch sampling three months after they recover from the disease. But her residential compound still insists on her testing using a separate tube and in a separate area to her neighbors. Not wanting to follow what she views as an excessive requirement from her neighborhood committee, Shi instead finds other testing sites where she can join the mixed sampling with others.

Na still worries that his previous employment and infection history will harm his job prospects. He says that he won’t tell the employer he has had Covid next time he seeks work in a factory. “There are so many ‘normal’ people. Why would they bother to hire a person who had tested positive before?” he comments bitterly.

Meanwhile, Shi is trying to combat the stigma against recovered Covid-19 patients. She has shared her stories of discrimination in diversity and inclusion workshops in her company and talked about her mental health condition openly with her colleagues. She also writes down her stories and shares them on her social media accounts and via livestream.

She finds the sharing to be empowering. “I think voicing what we have experienced is important, as I think this is a collective trauma for many of us. Only when you tell it can you start to heal it,” says Shi.

“Since the lockdown [in Shanghai], nobody has ever talked about what they have been through, what they suffered, physically and mentally,” Shi adds. “How do they manage to heal the damage done to them? Do they have enough support for the recovery process? We simply have no idea.”

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author Shihuan Chen

Shihuan Chen is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese. She is passionate about covering lively and untold stories in China, especially from a human-centric perspective. Her other writing can be found on Sixth Tone, Esquire China, and other media platforms.

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