Letter 15 - May 2003
The SARS nightmare is in the process of abating, allowing us to envisage a return to normality in the next few weeks. Hongkong and Canton have already received the green light from the World Health Organisation (WHO), while Beijing, after more than a month of the epidemic, is registering a decrease in the number of new cases and can foresee its liberation by the WHO in a few weeks. The rest of the country remains uncertain : the much debated contamination of the countryside does not seem to have occurred on a great scale, but the state of the rural health system being what it is, caution is still required.
What is certain is that the whole country has been touched by psychosis and the fear of the virus, that the preventive measures have involved the closure of public institutions everywhere, including schools, as well as the isolation of villages and small towns. Ningxia was no exception, and the School of Yuwang was closed for more than two weeks and the children sent back home as a preventive measure. Our friends in Ningxia were as worried about us in Beijing as we were about them... To be sure, if the epidemic reached this region where our activity takes place, it only appeared briefly, at a time when security was already in place, as opposed to what happened here in Beijing.
We received a lot of mail from the bursary holders of the Association expressing concern regarding our health in Beijing. We also received a very kind letter from Ma Yan which we quote below in full :
Dear Uncle and Aunt (my assistant He Yanping and myself),
Hello, how is your health, does your work proceed well, we think about you very often, we worry about you, and hope that you take care of your health.
I have seen that the war in Iraq has just ended, the torments of the Iraqi people are over. Just when one stops hearing about that war, a phantom called atypical pneumonia [SARS]arrives on the scene. A few days ago, I was not afraid of it, and I did not know much about it, but since the holiday on the 1st of May, I have been following the daily news closely, and I saw that everybody was wearing masks. It was only then that I grasped the seriousness of the SARS outbreak. I hope, Uncle and Aunt, that you are very careful when travelling, especially when you travel for reporting purposes.
On TV they explained the ways in which you can combat SARS, and they explained that on no account must one be afraid of it, that we can beat it. But I have heard that in a village close to here one man caught the pneumonia, and that he was taken by his family to the hospital to be treated. I am scared. SARS really does spread too quickly ! Before I thought that it was only in the big cities, the places where there is a high population density, that SARS could spread ; I did not think that it could appear in remote little villages, I am really very frightened. But I think that mankind will beat SARS, that one day we will be rid of it.
Uncle and Aunt, I hope that you take good care of your health, that you do not worry, especially about us, we are all well for the time being. I got good results at the mid-term exams, please be reassured.
I hope there will be many flowers for the start of the season, that you are both cheerful. Among the four seasons its spring that counts the most ! I hope you are rejuvenated day by day. I wish you good health, and that your work goes well.
4th May 2003.
After this letter we spoke to Ma Yans mother on the phone and we set their minds at rest. The fact that the High School was able to open its doors again a few days ago is the sign of a gradual return to normality.
Xiao Mei, a bursary holder of the Association, also wrote to us a few days earlier in the same spirit. The last time I phoned you, you asked me if I had any news of the pneumonia. At the time I replied : I know that it definitely hasnt reached here. You immediately laughed. That laughter was very pleasant to hear.
Since then, the population here panicked because of the pneumonia. People do not dare go to the hospital, students do not dare to cough during lessons, one goes red in the face with the effort of holding it back, because the teacher said that if anyone has a dry cough he must go back home to get well, and wait till he stops coughing before attending lessons again. And now we are on vacation but no-one knows what this vacation is any more !
I tried to taste the medicine. The first time I was in tears, and I was very unwilling to swallow it. Until then, I had never taken plant-based medicine, I really wanted to throw up, but mum ordered me not to disobey. My mother, who loves us, is worried that we will catch SARS. She spent so much money to buy medicines, that if we dont take them it would be like ignoring all that she does for love of us.
Besides the epidemic, the social difficulties of the poorest people have obviously not disappeared, because though the government has declared that treatment for SARS will be free, the same does not apply to other illnesses. Xiao Mei explains in her letter that, having lost her father last year, she now worries about her mothers health. She writes :
Yesterday, because she was not feeling well, my mother went for a check-up at the Doctor Lis, she might have caught hepatitis. I am very frightened of losing my mother as well : for my dads treatment we have already borrowed 10,000 Yuan (1,200 euros), and because of her illness, mum is always taking medicine. I am scared that we will lose her forever. What should I do ? How should I act ? I really do not know. Who can explain ? Why do I have to live through the loss of my parents year in year out ? Why ?
And I am sorry, but I havent done well in my mid-term exams. I got 88 in Chinese, 79 in Maths, 77 in Physics, 63 in English. I am really very sorry, I know that it is not enough to apologise, that you will be disappointed. But I hope that you will give me another chance. Now I am making an effort to improve, I am studying a lot in order to do well in the final exams. It is not only to deserve your help. It is also for love of Mum and for the teachers dedication.
This letter, like many others which we receive almost daily, illustrates the extremely difficult situation of the region. The SARS reveals all the problems, as we explained in the last letter. Even though one hopes that it will motivate a change of governmental politics vis-à-vis the least favoured regions and populations, one must not put ones hopes up too much... Our activity, modest though it is, must go on. And we hope to resume it as soon as possible.
P.S. The Diary of Ma Yan is now in the bookstores in the Netherlands and Italy. And at the end of the year it will be published also in China itself. Many Chinese publishers have shown an interest, and we have entered into an agreement with one of them who seemed to offer the most serious guarantees.