Shanghai Quarantine Diary, Part 3
Carl Setzer's chronicle continues. He had lived in China for 16 years, he ran a successful business there, but then he tested positive for Covid.
Part 1 of Carl Setzer’s Covid-detention diary is here. Part 2 is here.
As a reminder: Setzer, an American, was a long-time China hand. He had lived and worked there, starting in his early 20s, for many years. But when he tested positive for Covid after a trip from the United States to Shanghai, he was detained against his will for weeks in a “Covid hospital.”
This third installment begins when Setzer’s detention roommates, one from Russia and one from South Africa, get clearance to leave. But the hospital asks a favor of them before they go:
Shanghai Quarantine Diary, Part 3
By Carl Setzer
On their discharge day, as the two prepared their luggage for sterilization and called their contacts with their good news, a hospital admin came in and asked if they would be willing to do an on-camera interview to praise the hospital’s services. They specifically wanted the foreign outgoing patients to emphasize how much safer they felt in China compared to the various “worlds on fire” they had left behind. The Russian asked to be blurred out, but the South African didn’t seem to have a problem with it at all.
The hospital’s request alarmed me. My business was a very popular brewing company. If I didn’t comply, would they be tempted to unmask my name and personal information? My bars and restaurants and distribution channels would all slam shut and we would have to rebrand, if the company survived the social media firestorm at all.
Their departure was quiet, just some quick fare-thee-wells. With them gone, the room felt emptier than any place I have ever occupied. After the ritual of stripping the beds, the cleaning staff covered them with plastic enclosure sheeting. The plastic sheeting was then attached to an O3 ozonization machine. Each bed was left to sanitize for 30 minutes. It smelled like the inside of a plastic water can, but other than that felt incredibly pointless:
If I was still testing positive, and I was in the room, why would the beds remain sterile? And if the answer was that I was positive but not contagious, then why was I still in there?
‘This guy was sick.’
After the beds were sanitized, I had a moment’s peace — not long enough to call my family, due to the time difference, but long enough to enjoy some limited privacy.
Some two hours later, a symptomatic Japanese businessman was brought to the room. This guy was sick. Fever, cough, and labored breathing. He was immediately put on an oxygen line and had multiple IV infusions of steroids over his first two days. He was the general manager of a clothing and fashion company’s China production facility. He was in his mid-50s, overweight, with high blood pressure, diabetes, and hypertension. He was the only truly ill person I saw in my 30 days at that facility. And just like that, the conspiracy theory I incubated — that “asymptomatic” was code for “not sick at all” — went out the window. My empathy kicked in and I genuinely worried that this guy wasn’t going to make it. He looked like a human that was trying very hard not to look scared.
I couldn’t do much to help him. Only keep to myself and make sure he knew we were in it together. On the third day he was there — Day 12 for me — they made him sign a release for antibody therapy, and then the next day transported him to the ICU on the second floor. He didn’t speak English and only had broken Mandarin, but I helped him communicate the best I could. When he left the room, he thanked me in Chinese and gave me a thumbs up. I don’t know what happened to him; the hospital staff claimed they couldn’t share his status updates with me.
Day 15 in detention: a glimmer of hope.
On Day 15, I received my first negative lab result. The nurse who told me was extremely happy because she had seen me struggle with the routine. This first negative, from the hospital lab, meant that the next morning’s test would be sent to the Chinese CDC for verification. That meant a 36-hour delay and even more anxiety.
One’s head goes to a lot of places over the course of 14 days. You think you might actually be sick, and that the window to start showing symptoms hasn’t closed yet, and at any minute you might get a fever or a cough or a sore throat or joint pains and body aches. Then you start thinking about how much pain you are in on that bed, and how for the first five nights you couldn’t sleep because of the bruising on your hips and shoulders and ribs. Were those COVID-related joint pains? Have you already begun showing symptoms?
You start thinking that you may never be allowed to leave. What if you have a mutated form of the virus? What if…you don’t have it at all? Is this…political? Should I call the consulate? Will that cause more trouble? Is someone doing this to me? Is something doing this to me? I had made a mental list of all my business rivals and who amongst them had the deepest political connections. But with that first negative test, I felt a wave wash all these anxieties aside. Maybe I would be OK. Maybe this would soon be over.
I asked the nurse if she had any patients test negative at the hospital only to have it reversed by the CDC. She said she had never seen it but that it could happen. No one really ever spoke in absolutes. The phrases they preferred were, “That’s hard to say,” or “give it time,” or “you are too fat.” Her positivity was the best I could expect.
‘Daddy, are you OK in that shitty hospital?’
With the room to myself and a negative result in hand, I settled into a momentary state of zen. I repacked my things and washed all the dirty clothes in my possession in the small bathroom sink with soap I had brought with me.
While waiting for the CDC results to come back, I was taken for another CT scan. This time I was shuttled to the facility along with two college-aged Chinese men, an elderly gentleman from Sichuan who no one could really understand and a middle-aged man from the Shanghai region who blamed his condition on America and said the only cure was a cocktail of traditional Chinese medicine and the Chinese Communist Party. After the scan, I asked if I could walk back instead of cramming into an ambulance with four other COVID patients to be driven 300 meters. The nurse and administrator laughed at me and told me to get in the ambulance.
I laid down that night with hope, but I could sense my anxiety bubbling back up. The next morning, I again asked the nurse administering my PCR test what the probability was that I’d be positive after testing negative via the hospital’s lab. She replied almost too casually: “That never happens, you’ve been here a long time, you’re almost out, calm down.” She used a colloquial Chinese phrase that literally means “put down your heart” (fangxin), but can be interpreted as “put it in your heart and keep it safe” or “put your heart aside.” This was, alas, very hard to do. My conditions and environment were the least relaxing anyone could imagine, and my heart had been laid bare and exhausted.
I had a video chat on the phone with my wife, my son, and my six-month-old daughter. A daddy in a box. My son, being the world’s sweetest kid, asked me, “Dad, are you OK in that shitty hospital?” He was nine at the time and he knew it would be the one time he could drop a swear word and not get in trouble. He took his swing, hit a ground-rule double, and I love him for it. His profanity made me laugh so hard for the first time in weeks and helped me feel actual joy. I made plans with my wife and mapped out some timelines.
‘The world fell out from under me.’
The next morning, Day 17, they administered another CDC test, without telling me the results of my previous one. None of my attendants were eager to engage in dialogue. The only people who wanted to be there less than me, it seems, were my caregivers. I went through the paces, thinking to myself that they were just being thorough. A nurse came in at 3 p.m. and told me she was there to teach me how to use a nose-washing apparatus she held in her hand. Like an idiot I told her I tested negative and would be out soon. She responded that the doctor had prescribed it. I told her it didn’t matter, the doctor hadn’t gotten the CDC results yet and so I didn’t need that, it must be a mistake or an old order that was irrelevant now. The nurse wrinkled her face and left.
At 4:30 p.m., two doctors came in and told me they wanted to know why I hadn’t consented to the nose-washing machine.
I explained that I didn’t need that treatment since I would be out soon, as soon as the CDC results came back. But of course, the results were back already. The doctors hadn’t thought it best to inform me I was positive again before prescribing more enhanced treatments to remove any remaining virus from my testing area. These two doctors were there to demand I consent to prescribed medical treatment. They at no point told me that I was still positive, because that wasn’t their job. Their job was to push me to use an aggressive treatment for a disease I no longer believed I had.
A third doctor then came in with my test results in hand and barked that I was positive, as if it was expected and any expectation to the contrary was rude. The third doctor didn’t appreciate my reaction of disbelief and shock. One of the first two doctors, who was already annoyed that I wasn’t willing to push diluted iodine through my face three times a day, decided he needed to explain that the hospital’s lab results for PCR tests was only 80% accurate, and they tested for mid-DNA strain genome, and the Shanghai CDC tested for heads and tails and was 90% accurate.
This wasn’t about exchanging information: it was about a fear of responsibility and telling me to shut up and take my medicine. One lab’s method was more accurate, and one was less accurate, but neither were a hundred percent, so they needed to qualify both before they could let me go. The third doctor then ripped my heart out when he added nonchalantly that they could keep me for up to 120 days if they wanted. No one can ever tell me that that wasn’t a threat.
The world fell out from under me. One hundred and twenty days. My infant daughter would be 10 months old and would’ve spent more of her life without me, than she had in my arms. My son would be finishing his fourth-grade academic year and would have turned ten in my absence. My wife and I would have to reschedule her green card interview. They looked at me like I wasn’t understanding them, a common problem when communicating with Chinese bureaucrats (make no mistake, these were not doctors the way one thinks of medical doctors, these were bureaucrats the way Douglass Adams thinks of bureaucrats). They think that because one doesn’t consent, it means there’s a misunderstanding or an inability to understand, when in reality it means one does understand very clearly and one thinks it goddamn sucks.
‘The fall from hopeful to hopeless is the hardest drop.’
As I gave up on holding my emotions together, the doctors left the room confirming all tests would be sent to the CDC directly from now on, as well as some other empty platitudes. As I heard the doors’ methodical closing, I lost control. A panic attack combined with the most unbridled tears I’ve ever shed. I couldn’t breathe. I tried pacing to the bathroom and back again, but the room was empty and spinning and deathly silent. I went into the bathroom, leaned on the sink and tried to catch my breath. It wasn’t pretty. I looked into the mirror and saw a broken human I didn’t recognize…
My life had been an indirect path to that moment in the mirror. In it I saw a little boy inculcated with hate and subjected to cult activities and ultra-right-wing movements when he should’ve been playing baseball or taking theater classes. I saw a middle school aged thief and a liar caught with contraband that was stolen from those who called him a friend. I saw a confused teenager ignorant to the fact that the mental and emotional abuses he was subjected to could hurt more than the physical ones. I saw a sexually oppressed young adult fearful of spending eternity in hell if a mistake was made during acts of curiosity. I saw a twenty-something able to support an abortion but unable to say I love you. I saw a young man respond to the death of a loved one with nothing but his own absence, which felt like the proper way to send condolences. Neglect of responsibilities. Shame. Incomprehension of the struggles of those around me. An inability to heal.
Three and a half decades of pain, regret, mistakes, missteps, and failure, that’s what I saw in that mirror. I saw someone who had failed. That was the darkest moment of my life. Snot hung from my nostrils and red inflammation spread from my eyes outward. I tried to catch my breath and regain control. What would I tell my wife? What would I tell my son?
The fall from hopeful to hopeless is the hardest drop. I tried to calm myself and lay in the fetal position for 20 minutes. The sun had gone down. Food had been delivered but sat untouched. I sent my wife a message in a moment of brief clarity, but I couldn’t call her until I felt I could breathe again. This was when the decision was made: I would leave this place and never come back to China again.
The final installment, Part 4, coming tomorrow.
Another gripping and frightening installment. I thought of Kafka, too. And also of this quote from the beginning of episodes of the 60s tv series, The Outer Limits: “We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”
I loved the reference to Douglas Adams. Though it’s impossible to laugh at Mr. Seltzer’s story.
This is extremely hard to read. I was wondering why he didn't just call the consulate. Maybe because with the business there he had too much to lose. I haven't read Kafka, but this is the sort of thing I imagine. Why do people do this sort of thing to other people?