It’s become a morning ritual. Savoring the first sips of my decaf cappuccino, I open the Washington Post and watch the SARS cases in Beijing tick steadily upward. Thousands in quarantine. Schools closing. Peasants rioting. Sky falling. Amid the capital’s hysteria, however, little is reported about its more cosmopolitan sister, the pulsing metropolis I called home for six months: Shanghai. What gives?
As of this week, public-health officials were reporting only six SARS cases in that city of 16 million, while World Health Organization investigators tried to sift truth from obfuscation. With about 1,800 confirmed cases in Beijing and more than 1,400 in Guangzhou, it’s hard to believe the epidemic skirted the Manhattan of China while plundering its way up the coast. In fact, I may be living proof that SARS was simmering in Shanghai well before the viewing public first saw it inch across the CNN news ticker.
I returned from China in late January, weak, coughing, and about 10 pounds lighter than I had been at the New Year. SARS was still laying low, safe under cover of a conspiracy of silence, and no one gave me a second look. I slipped through Pudong International Airport, my temperature unchecked, just another American English-as-a-foreign-language teacher homeward bound.
I was lucky. Had the story burst into the open last November, when SARS first appeared in Guangdong province, I would have found myself quarantined in a Shanghai hospital, cut off from English-speakers who could translate for me and at risk of further infection. And fleeing China to seek medical care elsewhere would have required Special Ops training. But at least I would have had a confirmed diagnosis.
My case history goes like this: While living and teaching at a primary school on the outskirts of Shanghai, I awoke one morning in January feeling as though I’d been hit by a train. Days 1 through 3 flattened me with muscle aches and a fever so severe that I spent long stretches shaking beneath three quilts. By Day 4, I couldn’t take a deep breath without setting off spasms of dry coughing. A trip to the international clinic on Day 5 produced a cloudy X-ray, confirming pneumonia in my lower right lung. I’m not aware of infecting anyone else, but it took me about a month to fully recover.
In recent weeks, I have devoured the news from China with the morbid fascination of someone who dodged a bullet. But I haven’t been able to verify my near missor even to report it. A recovered case of SARS with onset of illness prior to Feb. 1 doesn’t count, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But where does that leave me? Can I donate blood? Will I have long-term respiratory problems? Am I susceptible to relapse?
By late March, when U.S. newspapers began to detail the progression of SARS, I had become convinced that I was at least a “probable” case, and the CDC Web site backed me up. Except for the Feb. 1 cutoff date, I fit the profile exactly. Thinking I could contribute to the scientific body of knowledge and maybe “out” the bureaucrats in Shanghai who maintained that their city didn’t have a problem, I called the CDC and the Maryland Department of Public Health to turn myself in. I met with utter apathy.
The woman fielding public inquiries at the CDC told me they weren’t interested in investigating cases that occurred before February, in keeping with the agency’s case definition. When I told her that I had lived in China, and the newspapers were reporting that SARS had emerged there as early as November, she responded, “Oh, we don’t know anything about that.”
The state of Maryland was only slightly more interested. An epidemiologist took down my information but called back two days later, after conferring with colleagues, with the helpful advice that I “monitor my health.” I asked if I could be tested for the coronavirus antibody when the test became available. She said she had no information on SARS testing, adding, “I don’t know what good it would do you now, anyway.”
Unwilling to accept defeat, I ripped the name of a CDC official investigating SARS in China from a news article, Googled him to get his e-mail address, and sent him my story. A month later, no response, but I guess I didn’t expect one from the eye of the storm. So here I sit, a potential whistle-blower who emerged too early for the news cycle, while Shanghai insists it has escaped the scourge.
Meantime, both Chinese and Western friends behind the silk curtain report that life in Shanghai has begun to resemble a tumble down Alice’s rabbit hole. On April 21, a Chinese friend there e-mailed to say that the government had shortened the Labor Day holiday and was telling people to avoid the hospital. Soon after, other friends wrote that rumors of the disease were rampant and that more people were wearing masks in public. By April 29, my Chinese friend was writing that even with areas blocked off for apparent quarantine, “the media still reported that there were only two people with SARS in Shanghai. But it seems unbelievable.”
The epidemic still shadows me. I hadn’t been so sick since I contracted scarlet fever at age 7, but timing, locale, and an apparent cover-up have cast me as an illegitimate claimant. While I remain watchful of my own health, I am more concerned for those I’ve left behind. They must contend with what one of them calls “fear of the fear,” in a city that remains blinkered even as Beijing promises transparency. I would have warned them had I known. CP