Journal of the plague year, #2

A second-day installment from the Chinese-American person now quarantined in Shanghai. First installment here. In this episode, a family member who has just been to the United States is diagnosed with... the H1N1 flu! Some additional thoughts from inside the quarantine site at the end of the dispatch.

 My mom was on all the major news outlets yesterday... "Woman has been diagnosed as a  confirmed case ..."  She had a slight cold which she caught at [a college graduation ceremony she just attended in the US] but was all better by the time she got on the plane. She had no fever, no cough, no physical symptoms of the flu. However, during one of the numerous times they measured her temperature while she was in quarantine, she was found to have a "fever" of 0.2C above normal.
They took her to an infectious disease hospital where they gave her a blood test. The PCR results came back positive. Other than that one measurement, her temperature has been normal since. The doctor that is treating her told her privately that he was sorry for her because as a medical professional, he recognizes that H1N1 is the normal flu but that he has to follow government protocol, "you are asymptomic with a low viral load so you were very unlucky to have gotten caught." ...

My mom has the virus and I have her cell phone so for the past day, I've been getting all kinds of phone calls and texts from her friends. The texts usually say something to the effect of, "We are so sorry. Please be comforted to know that you are under the care of the best doctors. Do not worry because you will recover from this horrible disease."  The phone calls are a bit more awkward because when I tell them that my mom has no physical side-effects, the reactions tends to be "Oh, of course not but don't worry yourself sick. You must take care of yourself.  Take care of your body and stay strong psychologically." Oh, Chinese media, you have done a wonderful job of brainwashing your audience.

I shouldn't be making fun of family friends who mean only well when they send me their condolences, however misguided.  Yet, there are others who have behaved in a manner that is to say the least, extremely disappointing.  Before we knew we were going to be quarantined, my mom went to her office to check her email. She was there for less than an hour.  She rode the elevator to the 10th floor and ran into some of her students on the way. At the time, she had no idea that she was carrying the latent virus. In the past 24 hours, the floor below and above where her office is has been cordoned off. Everyone working on those floors must submit to regular temperature checks. The place is swarmed with health officials and notices are up everywhere asking people who know my mother to be under high alert. Some have voluntarily requested to be quarantined for fear of having being infected. Three people, working in the floor above my mother's, complained of feeling feverish and were rushed off to the hospital.  

I am sorry if somehow, my mom did in fact infect those people with H1N1 although that likelihood is small and symptoms rarely develop that quickly. My mother is now racked with guilt for having inconvenienced so many people but she is also feeling somewhat betrayed.  A seemingly innocuous visit to her office has now been labeled as an "incident" by the government (murder would also be placed in the "incident" category).  Everyone who works for the institute has to attend a meeting to learn about H1N1 prevention and the heads of the institute have been summoned to report to officials in Beijing. We didn't know any of this was happening in the outside world but one of mom's co-workers called to tell her. In that same conversation, he not so subtly suggested that my dad, who is still in the US for a conference, should voluntarily quarantine himself for a week upon his return to China.

A picture of my mother in her hospital bed was taken and released to the media without her permission. Although they have not gone as far as to reveal her name, they have released enough personal information (including where she lives and works) to have made it very easy to identify her. She can't claim "innocence" but this incident has intensified her distain for Chinese politics. My parents work for [an elite organization, which] is filled with Chinese who were educated abroad but chose to return to the place of their birth. They love China as a country but as I have told some of you in the past, one of their biggest worries (which I once considered irrational) is that a movement like the CR could easily happen again. It is why my father insisted that my mom become a US citizen even though it severely limits her career working for a government funded organization.  Looking at the mass hysteria that the government was able to create and manipulate using H1N1, did China not learn anything?   

There are many little things that you become aware of when living in China... Every time I come home, I have to report to the police station to register my "foreign status".  This past Christmas, I failed to do so right away and two police officers showed up at my door. How did they know I was there? That is anybody's guess.  These incidents are strange in isolation but taken together, are far more disturbing. I was willing to overlook them in the past because I was so blindly fond of China but that is not the case anymore.  

In an additional note, the quarantinee is careful to emphasize that "the quarantine workers at the hotel are treating us courteously andthe general attitude seems to be that they believe they are doing this for our own protection." But:

 My indignation is directed at what I see as an overreaction and needless fear-mongering by officials and the state media (though I suppose the media hype is not just limited to China)....  The implications of creating mass paranoia are disturbing especially in this country. Most of the Chinese people who have called to offer me their condolences have also told me that I should not be upset because I am getting taken care of at no expense to myself. It must a cultural difference because I'm not exactly feeling grateful for this surreal experience.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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