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sars diary

It is the start of April when I hear from a friend that a case of SARS has been found in Harbin. It’s rumour-mill stuff, of course; the papers don’t report it, it’s not on the news, and there is most certainly no official mention of it. But Adam, Ben, and Sirena’s school posts a notice mentioning it, and a few days later a coworker of mine whose husband is a doctor tells me that there are “between 2 and 4” cases.

Sirena returns to Canada the next Wednesday.
Ben returns to Australia – for his sister’s wedding – on Thursday. He’ll be back around the middle of May, he says, and asks us to keep him updated.


A Beijingnese friend currently studying in America forwards me an e-mail she received from a friend in Beijing. It says this:

I just called a doctor friend of mine at the Beijing University Hospital to check whether this was true or not, and he said it’s all exactly like this, if not even more critical.

Beijing University Hospital has the responsibility of admitting [SARS-]infected medical workers; People’s Hospital admits civilian patients; United Hospital admits foreigners. The Chaoyang District* is one of the hardest-hit areas, and the hardest-hit of the hardest-hit is the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital, where eight medical workers have died. My child was scheduled to go there for standard innoculations today, but we were stopped by an announcement. A family member of mine is at the Zongzheng Hospital [(Zongzheng means ‘chief government,’ but I’m not sure whether or not it’s just a name in this context)], where a family of three (a middle-aged man and his elderly parents) has died.

All of this is to say: DON’T believe the government reported figures on deaths; the truth is that matters are much, much more serious. All we can do is rely on ourselves and be careful — “ain’t no saviour but yourself.’ *

An American friend sent me this; she was at Union Horpital earlier, and her news came from classmates at every major hospital in Beijing.

“I just called a classmate of mine at Beijing University Hospital (Originally Beijing Medical University Auxiliary Hospital #1). Yesterday afternoon, all hospital officials held an emergency meeting and briefing. Beijing University Hospital will reopen its currently-unused, old surgical departments and wards to admit Beijing medical workers who have been infected; they expect to be full withinin one or two days.

People’s Hospital will assume the responsibility of admitting civilian patients. Union Hospital will be responsible for treating bureau-level and above cadres. Formerly, infected patients were put in #302 Hospital, the PAP [People’s Armed Police] Hospital, or the Dongzhimen Hospital, but now these facilities are full of patients, so new cases will have to be admitted and treated instantly at their local hospitals. The above is all complately true. I’ve also heard that the area around the PAP Hospital has been put under martial law, and that the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital is in a state of emergency. The Sanlitun Number Two Primary School has had 32 children infected.

Wearing face masks is very important now – especially medical/clinical cotton gauze masks. Wearing eye protection is important too, because there’s a possibility that [SARS] can infect through membranes. Beijing has already met the criteria for being declared a disaster area, and it’s thought that this is only the first outbreak. Yeah – right now, the longest latent/incubation period that’s been seen is 21 days. Please tell all your friends and relatives to be alert and take precautions.

A friend just called me and said that an internal Health Department document says that the SARS in Beijing cannot be controlled – in maybe two weeks, it will explode. I really hope this is just a rumor…
Again, PLEASE, be careful, and avoid going out if you can help it!

Although some parts of the email are obviously rumour – like Chaoyang being hard-hit, which would be reported absolutely everywhere if it were true – other parts of it strike me and Kerry as entirely plausible courses of action for the government to take.


“Dear Friends,” says the woman in the radio broadcast playing in the taxi. “This is an update on our national crisis of atypical pneumonia.” There are a couple hundred in Hong Kong, a hundred-something in Guangdong, 4 in Beijing, and 2 in Shanghai.

“Scary shit,” says the cabbie. “Good thing there aren’t any cases of it in Heilongjiang.”


On Christmas Day, my school took me out for dinner to a local hotpot restaurant. Like any big Chinese dinner, there was a lot of beer. I wasn’t feeling very hungry, and there were a lot of toasts going around the table, and the principal of my school, who speaks no English, noticed that I was drinking more than I was eating.
“That’s the Western way of drinking, right?” he said.
“I suppose so. I’d never really thought about it before; mostly I’m just not very hungry.”

He turned to the other teachers and began to hold forth:
“One time about a year ago, I went to a bar not far from here called Log Cabin. You know that when we Chinese drink beer, we’re always eating something at the same time? Well, in this Western-style bar, you don’t eat anything – you just drink!
“Food masks the taste, and it wasn’t until I had gone to this bar that I realised the true fragrant nature of beer! We Chinese people disgrace beer by obliterating the flavour!”

He went on like this for a while, and closed by asking my alcohol tolerance and inviting me to go drinking with him sometime. I accepted, on the unspoken condition that this never actually happen, and then forgot about it until April 19, when he suddenly appeared in my office and asked if I had anything to do that evening.
Anyway, I didn’t, so we went out to the bar, Log Cabin, which proved to be both nice and ruinously expensive, and made general small talk along the way. It was he who first brought up feidian, SARS.

“How’s your health been lately?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said. “I think now that winter’s over, I’ll be just fine.”
“You know, China has this problem right now of aty–”
“–pical pneumonia – yes; I know. My family at home is very worried about it; probably they’re more worried than I am. And of course my friends in Beijing are panicked.”
“It’s a good thing you’re in Harbin — no cases of it here! This is a safe place to be!”
“Is it?”
“Oh, definitely. Tell your family there’s nothing to worry about.”


Harbin confirmed one case of SARS – the city’s first – two days later.

In the algebra of Chinese government reports, “one” is a stand-in for the phrase “so many that we can’t lie anymore.”


The government cancels the week-long May Day holiday. This is less of a bummer than one might think; Kerry and Adam and I had originally planned to go to Beijing, but since our Beijing friends have called us and said that the city’s unsafe, and since anyone leaving Heilongjiang Province will have to get a physical exam or be quarantined upon reentry, and since getting on a bus or train right now is a really stupid idea anyway, our plans had been shot for a while. Mainly, I’m pissed-off about having to work during mental-health-break time that I’d thought I would have off.

Luckily, the schools start closing down just a couple of days later.

Adam’s is the first; two of their foreign teachers have left already anyway, and the school was apparently hemhorraging money. Ceire and Karl’s school closes a couple days later, but at least agreesto pay their salaries while they remain out of work. Kerry’s university, like every other one in down, goes more or less into lockdown: no-one in, no-one out. He has to argue and prove that he’s a teacher in order to be allowed to leave, and everything coming in gets sprayed down with disinfectant.

My school remains stubbornly open, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.


From an email I sent my mother and two of my professors:
Got to school today and went though the usual rockstar mob of first-and second-grade kids, half of whom were masked. One of the not-especially-bright first-graders, Henry (I distinguish him from the other Henry in his class by referring to him as Fat Henry, which he and his classmates find hilarious), asked me (in Chinese, of course) if there was a foreign teacher class that night or not.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re not afraid of SARS?” he asked.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” I said. “Not even Martians or tigers.”

He seemed satisfied with this answer, and I walked into my office. Got on the computer to check Harbin news; found that access to all news sites was blocked from work. The bell rang then, anyway, and Dina – the first-grade teacher- and I went downstairs to teach the first class of the day.

It turned out to be the meeting bell, not the class bell, so we ran upstairs to the fourth floor in time for a 2-minute briefing session wherein the announcement was made – among other announcements – that all evening classes would be cancelled, and that teachers “should not teach any new content, but rather review old content. And play games with the students.”
Classes for both first and fourth grades were interrupted by squads going around and asking if any of the kids’ friends, relatives, or neighbors had recently come back from other places. They did this on Friday too, but it was more urgent today.

I am at home during a couple of prep periods on a warm, sunny Monday morning when I send this off, and shortly afterwards I get a call from Kerry. He and Adam are buying tickets out on Asiana Airlines, on the itinerary we’ve all discussed before: Harbin to Seoul (to avoid Beijing), Seoul for a few days, and then wherever.

I still have a pretty decent amount of time until I have to teach again, so I walk down to the ticket office – which is just a couple blocks away from my apartment, on the corner of Zhongshan Lu and Zhujiang Lu – and join them for lunch. Now that they have their safe escape assured, their moods are noticeably better – even though, like me, Adam had been planning to study in China all next year, a plan which is now ruined. He’s now planning to study in Taiwan insted, an idea which lodges itself in my brain and stays there for the next couple of weeks.
I go back to school after lunch and find out that I have a vacation after all; the school, they tell me, will close and reopen on May 6th. And after that, there won’t be full days; only half-days.

The reopening date strikes me as implausible – already, between half and two-thirds of the kids are being kept home by their parents – and I start to wonder if I’ll at least get my salary for April before everything goes belly-up. In the fifth grade class after lunch, I write my address and email on the blackboard, and tell the kids that if I don’t see them again, I would really like to keep in contact with them.


Kerry and Adam leave the next Sunday, and I send this email to my mother:

Had dinner with Adam and Kerry tonight at a Sichuan place. Both are sad and happy to be going, and both are saying that I should go too. I’ve had a constant cost/benefit chart going in my head the last few weeks about whether or not it makes sense to stay. Right now, it’s just about at parity, and within the next few days, I’m pretty sure that it will no longer really be justifiable to stay here; it seems pretty certain now that the school won’t reopen (I haven’t even told you the latest, completely-fucked development, which is that a teacher will call me every morning and “enquire about [my] health condition, which [they] are required to report to the Board of Ed.”), and my coworkers suggested that I leave anyway, and even Kun has said that it might be a good idea to go home for a while. On top of that, everything is really pointing to SARS being much worse in Harbin than is being reported: they’ve established an English-language SARS hotline – which is actually a truly worrying development – and Harbin Medical University Hospital (#1) is full.
On top of that, there was a news report the other day that they’re setting up
ge qu – quarantine zones – throughout the city, which would make no sense at all if there really were only the 5 cases that they’ve reported here. I went to Carrefour here the other day to buy groceries, and found the store mobbed – admittedly, not much more than is apparently normal. The worrying thing, though, was that (a) unlike what is normally the case, the crowds were not buying luxury items, but rather basic necessities like rice and cooking oil (both of which were entirely gone by the time I left the store), and (b) these guys are the wealthy, better-educated, better-informed citizens, and if something really is going on, they are the ones who’d know.

So I dunno. Tuesday is when I’ll decide; I’ll walk down Heping Er Dao Jie to school, and if it’s not open, then I’ll just keep walking – to Heping Lu, and then to Zhongxuan Jie, and then to Zhongshan Lu, and from there down to the corner of Zhujiang Lu, where the Asiana Airlines ticket office is.


And almost immediately after I send that email off, I realise that somehow the decision has already been made.

12 Comments

  1. vince wrote:

    holy crap! get out if you can. a couple of people w/sars died on the bus going from guangzhou to luzhou and it didnt even make the news/bodycount!

    Sunday, May 4, 2003 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  2. Rich wrote:

    Make the choice that you feel keeps you safest.

    I’d rather see alive Brendan in the US, than dead Brendan period.

    Sunday, May 4, 2003 at 4:26 am | Permalink
  3. gernika wrote:

    I am sad that you have to leave. I am sad about the whole thing. SARS has really fucked my plans for coming to China. But, as I would not now come to China, I can definitely understand how you are leaving.

    Sunday, May 4, 2003 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  4. kestrel wrote:

    Bless you for letting the rest of the world know what is really going on………..I think you are wise to GET OUT ASAP, while you still can. China is going to cease to be a world power much longer if this thing gets much worse. And too many medical workers are dying………….so who will care for all the new cases????

    Monday, May 5, 2003 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  5. Jon wrote:

    yo man. get the hell out of china. Ive know you way to long to see you die, trapped by some government quarantine in some shithole hospital, in some “developing” nation on the other side of the world. Get back here before the summer. Everyone stateside will be very glad to see you (alive). Im worried for you as it is and I’ll be even more worried if you’re not home by sometime in June. Good luck and hurry your ass up, son.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 1:28 am | Permalink
  6. bonnie wrote:

    Get out, Brendan…

    Come back, it feels so much better over here. I’ll come up for your birthday, I promise, and we can get Chinese food and go to some club and buy a whole bottle of vodka if you want and I’ll drink 1/3 of it and puke it up in the bathroom and/or dance with a guy and think it’s a girl or whatever you want just COME HOME.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  7. megan wrote:

    it’s hard to believe it’s that bad after hearing form my friend in beijing a couple weeks ago. everything seemed fine, and i thought the SARS thing was overrated because everyone know in beijing didn’t seem really worried about it. now it’s starting to sink in that i won’t be going back to china this summer, for the first time in 7 or so years. i’m really worried about everyone i know in china, and i hope you get to a safe place soon. i really don’t see a point in staying there and living like that. i hope the weather gets hot really soon because SARS is said to die on most surfaces at a certain temperature. china needs a major change in government….

    stay well.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  8. mundada wrote:

    fuck off gandu ko

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 5:18 am | Permalink
  9. Brendan, if you come back to philly, we’ll go out and have a clean-air night on the town. Summer break is starting for everyone next week, so partying will occur. Stay safe; I know you’ll do what has to be done.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 6:21 am | Permalink
  10. johanna wrote:

    Thanks for the informative (if rather chilling) update. I’ve got an American friend who’s currently teaching English in Beijing and I haven’t heard from him for several weeks. *sigh* I agree with the other comments on the thread – get out while you can!

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  11. Bension Dworkin wrote:

    Just curious, when were you originally planning on coming back?… the whole thing sounds like a scary movie. I hope everything works out.

    –Ben

    Wednesday, May 7, 2003 at 4:52 am | Permalink
  12. Zach wrote:

    Cheers for the Update bro,
    The threat on Harbin concerns me more than enough theres times where I just sit here and honestly cry bro for those inocent lives and kids in the nation. I have many Chinese friends in that city alot being families and children. I hope you make the right decision my friend with staying or going, China needs a miracle for this thing to go and I believe the only answer is God…however I guess only the live experience in China can tell what is really going on. Thanks for your all out update man, means alot to hear some truth and feel like Im back there among the snow of Zhongshan Daije and the amazing faces and beautiful people, hope it all works out for you in that mighty city….gis an email sometime
    Shangdi bao you ni!

    Zaijian,

    仔克 – Zach

    Wednesday, May 7, 2003 at 10:22 am | Permalink

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