Shuttling around Shandong province on a bus for two days, every second passenger was coughing, and the man in the next seat on the train back to Beijing sniffled his way through the five-hour journey. So it wasn’t a great surprise when I came down with something a couple of days later.
The international news was full of reports of pneumonia affecting children in China, although the Chinese media had much less to say about it. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the illness appeared to be caused by known pathogens rather than a new virus or a fresh strain of coronavirus.
“Recently we have seen some clusters of flu cases among children in certain parts of China. In fact that is a very common phenomenon in many countries, and in China that has been put under effective control,” China’s foreign minister Wang Yi told reporters in New York this week.
After testing for Covid and rejecting the idea of pneumonia, I concluded that it was just an old-fashioned flu and took to the bed to wait for it to pass. Nobody in Europe was terribly interested – and there was no reason why they should be – but my Chinese friends wanted all the details.
Everyone was very concerned, some suggested I should call the doctor and others that I should go to the hospital. And all of them had advice about keeping warm, drinking lots of hot water and what to eat or avoid.
“Get some ginger, smash it with a knife, mix it with sugar, boil it for 20 minutes and add hot water. It will make you sweat,” my friend Jiajia said.
She said that if that didn’t work she would ask her boyfriend who is a doctor at one of Beijing’s biggest hospitals to come and see me. I told her that would not be necessary and set about mixing the ginger potion, which turned out to be delicious if nothing else.
Jiajia and her boyfriend met a year ago and moved in together almost immediately, although her mother withheld her approval. The first time she took him home to meet her parents the doctor took a bite out of an apple before giving it to Jiajia, an act of Edenic intimacy that seems to have infuriated her mother and turned her against him for good.
Jiajia asked me what I thought about doctors as boyfriends and I said they had a lot going for them, notably that they were usually busy and always unsentimental. Their relationship has flourished and it was only briefly knocked off course in May when Jiajia got Covid and experienced for the first time the chilly indifference doctors tend to show towards illness among those they love.
As the week went on and my symptoms improved, Jiajia said she would come to visit me with the doctor and that I could take them out for dinner. He was wearing a pale blue N-95 face mask and he said he tells his patients that they should be wearing one too.
“They come in with Influenza Type A and I tell them, you will recover from this and then in a couple of weeks you could get Covid, and a couple of weeks after that you could get an ordinary flu and a couple of weeks after that something else. ‘Wear a mask,’ I tell them. But they don’t,” he said.
He had just come off a day shift from 8am to 6pm, which was a breeze compared to the night shift from 6pm to 9am. He said there were a lot of Covid cases and Influenza A and B, and that the new respiratory infection everyone was talking about seemed mostly to be mycoplasma, which was not new.
He put the current wave of infections down to the rebound effect after three years of zero-Covid had kept viruses of all kinds in check. I asked him how many of the patients he was seeing really needed to be in a hospital and he said “about 5 per cent”.
I said that where I came from we tend to brush off illness and to play it down but in China people seemed to take even the slightest symptom seriously.
“They care about their health and they’re afraid of death. They think if you have a cold it could lead to pneumonia and that could kill you,” he said. “Three years of Covid showed the different attitudes between China and the West. When we saw what happened there we thought westerners don’t care about life or death the way we do.”