On December 10, 2022, award-winning Chinese science fiction writer Han Song began documenting his struggle with COVID-19 on his Weibo account. Han Song’s “Covid Diary,” which was accompanied by various pictures he took with his cellphone, went viral online.
Translator’s note: On December 10, 2022, award-winning Chinese science fiction writer Han Song began documenting his struggle with COVID-19 on his Weibo account. His chronicle corresponded with the sudden lifting of Zero-COVID-related policies in China and a rapid spike in coronavirus cases throughout China. Han Song’s “Covid Diary,” which was accompanied by various pictures he took with his cellphone, went viral online. (Earlier in 2022, Han Song had already gained much attention for his public struggle with dementia-like symptoms, which he also recorded on social media.) This English translation is the eighteenth and final installment of his blog, which captures what it is like for many patients struggling with COVID-19 during the unprecedented wave of COVID infections in late 2022 and early 2023. – M.B.
(Installment 18) Monday, January 9; Day 31
I began to feel unwell and tested positive for COVID-19 on December 9. So, as of today, it has been exactly one month since I have been sick.
For the past few days my coughing and wheezing have intensified, and I have also been suffering from tachycardia and heart palpitations. There was even one moment when I felt like my symptoms might be life-threatening. I decided I needed to go back to the hospital.
I was unable to make an appointment at the Respiratory Critical Care Department at Peking University Hospital. Instead, I decided to go back to the emergency room. Last time I visited the ER was on December 27.
I took the subway and arrived at Peking University Hospital’s ER at 4:30 pm. As soon as I got there, I was immediately struck by a comforting sense of familiarity. There seemed to be fewer patients at the ER than the last time around. They are saying that Beijing has already gotten over the hump when it comes to the peak of COVID-19 infections.
Last time I came here I arrived at 7:30 pm and, upon registration I was given No. 317 and was told that there were more than 80 patients ahead of me in the queue. This time, after arriving at 4:30 pm, I was No. 179, and there were less than 30 patients ahead of me. And, unlike last time, when there were constant ambulances coming in with new patients, I didn’t see a single ambulance this time.
But there was one thing that didn’t change at all since my last visit to the hospital: the main entrance hall, the hallways, and area beside the elevators were all full of patients, with many of them receiving IV infusions or on oxygen. Many of them appeared to be on their last breath. The emergency room and observation room were completely full, and occasionally, new patients were brought in on wheelchairs or stretchers.
The nurse at the triage desk had me undergo an EKG, which showed signs of sinus tachycardia and indicated that I might have an enlarged left atrium and ventricular hypertrophy on both the right and left sides.
Like last time, two young doctors were stationed at the emergency room’s internal medicine department, one male and one female. The consultation room was still packed with patients, there was even a patient on a bed receiving oxygen.
The male doctor was extremely conscientious and carefully listened as I explained that I was suffering from COVID-19 in addition to asthma. He said, “That is a serious condition!” He then proceeded to listen to my heart and lungs with the stethoscope; he observed that my heart rate was still well over 100 beats per minute. He requested I undergo a more thorough examination; in addition to checking my blood pressure and a blood test, he looked up the results of my CT scan from twenty days ago and asked me to have another CT.
Although there were overall fewer people in the ER, there seemed to be more people lined up waiting for various tests and exams. When I went to have my blood drawn, the nurse had trouble finding a vein. Unable to successfully draw any blood, the nurse kept saying kind things to console me and repeatedly apologized. But in reality, I was the one who felt bad – my thin veins make it hard to find a good place to draw blood. Finally, another nurse came to give it a try, and I gave her my other arm. My arm was in a lot of pain, but my heart was in even more pain – these poor women had already been working under such intense pressure for more than a month. I heard that last month when cases were at their peak, Peking University Hospital was seeing more than 600 patients a day at the ER.
After registering at the CT lab, a doctor called out: “Where’d he go? Where’s the patient? Wheel him in!” I responded, “I’m the patient.”
I saw all kinds of sick beds, stretchers, and gurneys lining the hallways from the CT room to the lab and all the way down to the pharmacy. There were a lot of elderly patients lying there completely still, like mummies with all kinds of tubes inserted into their bodies. There was one old man repeatedly screaming, “Relax! Relax! Relax!” The person taking care of him just kept repeating, “It’s okay. It’s okay. I know it’s unbearable. Next time we won’t come to the hospital.” I heard someone else say: “Last night mom spent the whole night in the main hall receiving an IV drip, but her fever still hasn’t gone down. Then they transferred her to the critical care unit in the ER. If something bad should happen and she doesn’t make it, there is no way I’m letting them put her in one of those yellow body bags. I’ll make sure she is washed and gets a proper casket.” Then there was a middle-aged man receiving an IV drip; his wife helped him down off the bed so he could urinate. She held up a small wool blanket to block the view so he could pee into a basin right there in the middle of the main hall.
Besides the results of my pulse and blood pressure, which were available immediately, I had to wait two hours for the results of all the other tests. I sat back down to wait. Just after 8:00pm, I saw two people carrying a long rectangular black box that looked like a coffin out of the ER. The last time I was here in the ER, all I saw were yellow plastic body bags.
It wasn’t until 9:00 pm that all of my test results were in. I went back into the consultation room to discover the male doctor I had seen earlier had already left. The female doctor was examining an old lady suffering from a combination of COVID-19 and viral and bacterial pneumonia. She had already been receiving infusions at the hospital for ten straight days and now needed another one.
The young female doctor spoke with a southern accent and, after she examined my test results, announced: “Pneumonia. I don’t see any change compared with the CT you had on December 27. Since such a short time has elapsed since then, there is no reason to re-do the test.” She asked me several questions and determined that there might be something wrong with my heart. She said I should come immediately to the ER the next time I feel any cardiac-related symptoms so they could catch any signs of danger on the spot. She also suggested I go to the cardiovascular department for additional exams.
During this trip to the ER, I spent 70 yuan on the registration fee and more than 1200 yuan on the various tests and examinations. There was also a charge of 97 yuan for the medicine they prescribed. Last time it was 90 yuan. The medicine they prescribed was mainly to treat my asthma and the discomfort I was feeling in my lung area – that extra 7 yuan was because I suggested the doctor also prescribe a round of prednisone. I have taken this previously for inflammation, but the doctor warned me to only take it if it was absolutely necessary.
The result of these two recent visits to the hospital were both about the same. This seems to prove my initial thoughts were correct – when it comes to COVID-19, there is actually no effective treatment that can be offered. The crux of the matter rests on whether or not you are able to pull through.
I left Peking University Hospital Emergency Room at 21:40 after spending five hours and ten minutes there – a half hour quicker than the last time I went to the ER. The number of patients was markedly fewer than last time.
Over the course of the past month, I have only left my apartment twice – both times it was to go to the emergency room.
My symptoms include: high fever, wheezing, coughing, heart palpitations, chest pains, loss of smell, diarrhea, and body aches, but I don’t have that feeling of blades cutting my throat that others have been experiencing.
Besides the high fever, which has abated, all of my other symptoms have persisted for an entire month, with some of them slightly improving and others getting worse.
I haven’t taken any medicine for my fever or any drugs specifically for COVID-19, nor have I tried Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional Chinese medicine used to treat the flu.
I stopped taking all the drugs I had been using to treat my symptoms of dementia, and I also stopped taking my anti-depressants and my cerebrovascular disease medicine.
In total, I went through three boxes of cephalothin, several bottles of loquat cough syrup, and many lozenges, but none of that stopped my coughing. Then again, perhaps if I didn’t take all that medicine my cough would be even more severe?
I’m not sure.
I received oxygen treatment three time and nebulization ten times.
I also tried around a dozen doses of nitroglycerin, compound red sage pills, and Qiliqiangxin capsules.
I called 911 once but was told I would have to wait eight hours for an ambulance to arrive, so I gave up. Later, there was one point during which my chest pains were so severe that I also called 911 a second time, but I was afraid the hospital would be too crowded. I was also worried that I might catch a chill and the bumpy ride would kill me, so I gave up on that idea. However, I realize now that those fears may not have been the most scientifically based.
During my two trips to the ER I witnessed what looked like the remains of dead patients being carted away from the scene. That experience really hit home with the fact that life is indeed filled with suffering, and everything else is but an illusion. I also thought back to 1995 when I first attended the Two Sessions to cover the news that deputies from the National People’s Congress had jointly proposed a bill to legalize euthanasia. The same bill would later be proposed many more times.
During the past month, we went from everyone being required to get constant COVID-19 swabs, scanning our QR health codes every time we went out, living under lockdowns, and being sent to temporary hospitals to suddenly seeing all of that disappear without a trace – and it all happened overnight.
During this one month, more than a dozen of my family members and relatives have tested positive for COVID-19. Almost all of my friends and colleagues have tested positive. Among my close friends and their relatives, more than a dozen people I know have died from COVID-19.
This month the English translation of my novel Hospital is scheduled to be published in the United States. In this science fiction novel that was originally published in Chinese back in 2016, I wrote about an entire society that transformed into a massive hospital. In that world, every citizen living in the Age of Medicine must uphold the common beliefs of their era: 1) Everyone is sick; 2) the sick are useless; 3) illness is untreatable; 4) all illnesses must be treated; 5) to be disease-free is itself an illness; 6) those suffering from serious illness are akin to be being free from illness.
HAN SONG is a journalist with Xinhua News Agency and one of China’s leading science fiction writers. A native of Chongqing, Han earned an MA in journalism from Wuhan University; he began writing in 1982 and has published numerous volumes of fiction and essays. His novels include The Red Sea, Red Star over America, the Rails trilogy (Subway, High-Speed Rail, and Orbits), and the Hospital trilogy (Hospital, Exorcism, and Dead Souls), which has been described as a new landmark in dystopian fiction. Han is a six-time winner of the Chinese Galaxy Award for fiction and a repeat recipient of the Xingyun Award. His short fiction has appeared in the collections Broken Stars and The Reincarnated Giant and the anthology Exploring Dark Short Fiction: A Primer to Han Song. Han Song is also an avid reader and traveler, having traveled to the Antarctic and the Arctic. He’s even searched for bigfoot in the forests of central China.
MICHAEL BERRY is a professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies and director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA. He is the author of several books on Chinese film and culture, including Speaking in Images, A History of Pain, Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke and Translation, Disinformation and Wuhan Diary. He has served as a film consultant and a juror for numerous film festivals, including the Golden Horse (Taiwan) and the Fresh Wave (Hong Kong). He is also the translator of several novels, including To Live, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (with Susan Chan Egan), Remains of Life and Hospital by Han Song.