Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, PRC February 8, 2003 Saturday
On a beautiful, cool Saturday I was sleeping in. It was the middle of my Chinese New Year Holiday and I still had another full week off. Then my peaceful morning respite was interrupted when the phone rang. “Michael, turn on TV and see if there is anything about a sickness in Guangzhou, then call me back.” Marina Wang, my girlfriend who I lived with at the time, was at work. A colleague of hers had an aunt who was an RN at a major hospital in the city. She had called her niece to tell her of something terrible and secretive going on at her hospital. She had told her that several people–number unknown–were in quarantine in a wing of the hospital, and now it was rumoured, one of the doctors treating said people had taken ill. Marina explained all this as I scanned local TV channels and the English language channels out of Hong Kong.
“I’ll go online and see if I find anything, I’ll have better luck there.” She told me to call her immediately if I had found anything. I soon got to work searching online for everything I could think of, including mention of plague in South China. After a few hours of searching and nothing on TV, I decided to take action. Having lived in China for two and a half years I realized that no news was bad news. I then began to gather information of local hospitals from online sources so I could email it to the World Health Organization. I contacted Marina again to get the name of the hospital where her friend’s aunt worked. The letter which I sent to the W.H.O. (which I unfortunately have no copy of) is paraphrased below to the best of my recollection:
To the World Health Org. from Michael E. Lovett, s.s.# xxx xx xxxx, passport ID# xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx I live in Guangzhou. My Chinese girlfriend, a well educated woman who works in foreign account management at the main local provincial bank contacted me and told me of something I think you need to act upon immediately. Her workmate has a relative who is an RN at Traditional Medicine Hospital in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province PRC, reported that a hospital wing has been quarantined with severely ill people, number unknown, and a treating physician has fallen ill. Below is a list of all hospitals I could find in Guangzhou and their respective phone numbers and addresses: (list of hospitals that I found was inserted here) I feel it is not only urgent but extremely necessary that you notify whatever other authorities about this. To me it sounded as if it were like a plague of some sort. Knowing China and the way it likes to react slowly to bad situations I urge to to act promptly. I am sending a copy of this to the CDC as well. Please contact me immediately if you find out any more about this and I will do the same.
Later in the afternoon Marina arrived home and we talked about it for a bit. She said someone else had a relative in a hospital and had also called there at her work. People were getting not only curious but scared.
The next day I went to the local watering hole where many of my fellow expats hung out, especially on Sunday. When I arrived two of my good German friends were already at the bar. I sat beside Mario, a welding tech who was there with a few others supervising on parts of a new subway line in the city’s growing metro line. When I told him of the mysterious outbreak in the hospital, he thought I was kidding. “Michael, this is not funny. I am here in a foreign country with my Chinese wife. I am already squeamish enough about sanitary conditions in this country, much less a contagion!” I assured him I was not kidding. He told me his wife has a relative who works in the hospital–a nurse or doctor; I couldn’t recall–so he would call her and see if she could find out anything. He left the bar and went outside to talk because of the bar music.
A few moments later he came in and we continued to drink and talk about this possible problem. About 20 minutes later his wife called back and he went outside again. He came back in within a few minutes, his face a bit ashen. “Michael, I really hoped you were kidding–but you were not! My wife’s cousin said the same thing is happening in her hospital, and people have died!” He sat quietly at the bar, one hand on his beer, the other nervously tapping on the wooden surface of the bar. He then turned to me and told me that he may just take his wife right that day and fly home to Germany. I didn’t expect his reaction to be that erratic but I could certainly understand. He was not in China because he loved the culture; he was there because he loved higher pay by living in a foreign country. He didn’t like the food, he didn’t like much about China at all, except his wife of course. He soon left after finishing his drink and told me he would call me to say goodbye if he did indeed leave.
That evening at home over dinner Marina and I had still not heard anything about “the plague” on TV or online or anywhere, but something odd was beginning to happen. She got a phone call from her mother who told her to go immediately to the corner market and buy as much white vinegar as she could. Not understanding I went with her as she explained. According to her mother’s country wisdom (although her mother was a school teacher during the Cultural Revolution to be fair) we were to pour the vinegar in pots and put on the stove and heat until steaming, then move them about the apartment to fumigate and destroy any organisms from the sickness that everyone was now somewhat knowledgeable about. When we got to the store, a large truck was in front and a man was handing out cases of liter bottles of vinegar–the street was busy with locals buying bottles or cases and giving the money to a man who stood beside the truck–evidently the proprietor–who made change. Marina insisted we buy two cases. Considering how much one case of six full glass liter bottles weighed and we had three blocks to walk home, I questioned her judgement as to my strength. Marina though is always efficient and she hailed a cab for the short drive home. She was smiling all the way back saying “Mother said everyone is buying it where they live and some places have run out.” Indeed there was a run citywide on vinegar and store shelves were emptied even though the price shot up from .60 cents a bottle to a whopping 12 Yuan
Once home she went about setting up the vinegar remedy as I went to the computer to look yet again for information about this obviously growing local awareness about it all. When I saw the truck and the people surrounding the truck, it really struck a cord; this is China and the government does not like to create unease among the people, especially in their new age of prosperity and modernity. I was also careful not to ridicule Marina or her mother’s Chinese wisdom on the matter. I am all for natural herbal remedies, but breathing in tear inducing vinegar fumes all evening? Still nothing online or on the nightly news.
The next day I went to do some work with Lia who owned and operated a translation service. When I arrived I asked if she had heard any rumours of a disease killing off patients and hospital staff in the city. Not only had she not heard of it, but she seemed to get panicky. “Michael! This is serious news! I must call someone, be patient and I’ll get back to you.” She then closed herself off in her office while I sat outside. I could hear Lia in the next room, her voice silent at times, then suddenly rising as people do when confronted with something they don’t want to believe. Reflections of Mario’s “I hope you are kidding” came to mind as I eavesdropped on my boss. Again, like Marina, Lia was well educated and very business like, but the woman who came out of her office seemed transformed. She said quickly “Come with me.” We went down the elevator and into the rush of pedestrians and walked a few blocks to a modern Chinese “western” pharmacy. Unlike a traditional herbalist-type pharmacy this one had nicely packaged goods in sleek boxes wrapped in cellophane. Everyone who worked there was smartly dressed in crisp white lab coats and it all looked pretty much like any pharmacy in America. There was a line at the counter and I thought nothing of it except everyone was leaving with the same thing; a large 16″ x 16″ box that had an image of herbs on the front. Finally Lia explained to me what we were doing there. “I am sorry if I seem flustered (she did) but when I went to my office to call, I was talking to my brother–he’s a doctor. I cannot believe he didn’t tell me about this!” Flustered still she went on to tell me that her brother had indeed known about the epidemic (now an epidemic? And still no media reports?) but that she should go to the pharmacy and purchase a special “herb remedy”. When she had her turn at the counter she got into a discussion with the sales woman. I couldn’t follow all of it, but understood “only two boxes each person”. So of course we left with six–Lia is nothing if not the quintessential Chinese bargain master and Dragon-tongued negotiator. I helped her get her supposed herbal anti-viral supplies back to her office. She said that she was so frazzled by it all that she was closing up shop and heading home. I assured her that everything was OK and that this would all blow over in a few days. At least that was what I hoped.
That afternoon I returned to the pub to find my friend Mario and his workmate at the bar. He was glad to see me and told me he wasn’t leaving after all, but staying home until this all went away. Meanwhile all of us agreed that it was unusual–but usual–that there was no official or unofficial news or information being printed or broadcast. When I got back home that late afternoon Marina was waiting. She told me her friend had called, the one whose relative was a nurse. She told Marina that the doctor and three attending nurses were deathly ill and now also in quarantine. Also it was rumoured that a doctor at another hospital had died as had several of the incoming patients. Word was circulating within the hospital that the patients had come in from the countryside from the same area, all very ill. This really worried me. I was in a foreign country with no medical insurance; what would happen to the foreigner who fell ill? I imagined myself laying in a gutter, spitting up blood as people avoided me, covering their faces with white cloths. In one respect my scary vision of the future was not too far off. The next day we would soon find out what was really going on.
On Tuesday, February 11, news broke from an official statement put out by the local disease control authority. There was a local epidemic that had officials said, been contained and the sick had all been quarantined. No mention of death or sick hospital employees though. A bit later in the day the local news media sources were adding to the official announcement urging all citizens to stay home and avoid public places if possible for the following days. Now that was alarming. They also advised that if we had to go out, that wearing protective facial masks and even disposable gloves would be a good idea. OK, I was getting a bit scared now. Marina and I walked down the street to the local pharmacy and found an already large group of people outside in line, all wanting to purchase masks and gloves. We waited and were turned away after about fifteen minutes; they just didn’t have that many on hand to sell.
Marina called her mother when we got back home and then she said “We are going to visit my family. Change clothes and look nice.” I did as I was told and within a half hour we were in a taxi heading to the subway. The ride out of town took about thirty minutes. When we arrived we took another taxi to her sister’s home, where her mother and father were waiting for us. It was after all the later part of the Chinese New Year. We arrived after a five story climb to her sister’s apartment to see a table full of prepared food. We cleaned up and sat with the family and had our second New Year feast. I always loved these family gatherings because they never skimped on the entrees and side dishes. There must have been twelve or so different things to choose from, each unique; pine nuts with corn, sauteed sausage with spring onion and garlic, stir fried mustard greens with garlic, lotus root, baked eggplant with garlic, slabs of pork fat seared to perfection, Cantonese style steamed fish–two of them, a tofu dish with spring onion and a few others I can’t recall.
Afterwards I played with Marina’s young and charming niece; she was about three and very precocious. She sang a silly song and then just play-acted around the me, the enraptured foreign audience. After three or four hours it was time to go. Her mother retrieved two boxes and handed them to Marina. One was a box of disposable latex gloves and the other one, disposable hospital masks. Nice parting gifts! We thanked them all and then wound our way down the five flights of steps and onto the street to find the taxi her sister had called for us. We too the metro back into town, both of us stuffed from our huge dinner and a bit tired from the entire ordeal. We changed once we settled in and sprawled on the couch, Marina laying against my shoulder. After about an hour of TV I heard her soft almost silent snore, like a tiny puppy after eating, she was all curled up next to me, content and feeling safe. I only wish I felt the same way.
The next day was a scene from an apocalyptic novel. I had walked down to the main road in our neighborhood where the pharmacy mentioned was as well as many other shops and eateries. It was normally a very busy sidewalk throughout the day, but not this day,the first day after the news announcing a “contained epidemic”. In China, regardless of where you are and what time of day, sidewalks by and large are teaming with life. You learn quickly to navigate the sea of humanity and the Chinese are not like what we foreigners are used to back home. These people bump into you and always somehow manage to be walking directly toward you even if there may be plenty of space either side. It’s and odd phenomena I have discussed with other expats. We call it “the rambling Chinese gait” because inevitably we all get ran over by these oddly meandering sidewalk zombies.
I had no worries of that happening today though. The sidewalk on either side of the four lane boulevard was about one third full of pedestrians and there was a cautionary air about everyone around me. I was the foreign devil after all–surely I had brought this intrepid disease among their fair and virgin populace. I was heading to the McDonald’s about three blocks further up the road. Marina had gone to work and I was still off with nothing to do so I thought I would stroll around the city, against the advice of the media and the government’s health advisory board.
The line at the counter was nonexistent; usually it’s three deep around breakfast and lunch, not to mention dinner time. The new Chinese middle class regard western fast-food chains as a twofold win. For one they are far superior to anything home grown as far as cleanliness and food standards. Second it is a bit of a status symbol to be able to buy lunch for your one child and yourself. A basic meal at a McD’s cost wise could easily by a really nice full course meal for two at a decent restaurant. I got my order and decided to take it with me to a really pretty park a few more blocks away. The area Marina and I lived in was really old, with beautiful old buildings that dated back to Colonial Britain’s days trading with the Cantonese during the Opium Wars. Even the current governor’s house was a mere half block from my own apartment. It was a sprawling edifice with a large stone wall and guards posted outside, huge trees hanging over the walkways. At the park I chose a bench and sat down and began eating my sandwich. Before long a civilian guard approached and motioned me to move along. I ignored him as I usually do–these chaps have no authority, usually carry a long red-white painted metal staff and generally waste government money by being paid because they do absolutely nothing. This one was persistent though and I finally put down my sandwich and looked at him, saying “Gou huang tang” which means “enough of this nonsense!” He looked at me a stern moment, a moment to long for me so shouted at him “Zhou!” which means “go!” He finally sauntered off, tapping the sidewalk with his metal stick for emphasis. I am still not sure why he didn’t want me sitting in the park. I know you can bring food there because it is usually populated with dozens of people doing exactly that; taking a little lunch break under a glorious shady Kapok tree before returning to work. I finally left, thinking I would go to the internet cafe. When I got there I found the door locked with a hand written note in Chinese “Closed due to sickness”. Hmmm…I pondered if they meant the person in charge was sick? Or did they mean because the city was sick? I wasn’t sure but I didn’t stick around to ask. I waited by the curb for a cab and that’s when I noticed it. Not only were the sidewalks near empty, but people were avoiding contact with me. Two empty taxis drove by me even though they had no passenger and their light was on. The third one stopped for a woman 50 feet away from me! I thought I was imagining it, but it happened two more times. Usually a cab will U-turn in the middle of a four lane road to get a foreigner in their cab. I was astounded, but I couldn’t blame them. The cab that did stop handed me a disposable mask (I’d forgot mine). he had one on himself and so w drove in silence the whole way to the pub.
Fortunately things were a bit more festive at the bar. It was only one o’clock so I didn’t expect to see a lot of people, but was I wrong. The place was nearly full of expats and almost no Chinese except for the staff. I joined a small table of people I knew as the bar was full of patrons nursing drinks. The people I sat with were from various parts of the world. One Swede, one guy from Austria, another from Dubai. We all began discussing the epidemic and our experiences over the last few days. All of them said that they were told not to come to work for the rest of the week. That was dramatic to say the least. They said they thought it was more likely that the Chinese didn’t want to mix with the foreign devils because of their lack of immunity to our foriegn diseases. We all chimed in that it was from China that most likely that the black death migrated from because of trade along the silk road. Also, what about all those flu strains We thought it highly hypocritical but then again, the Chinese government was always quick to point to outsiders for their woes rather than at themselves.
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