I returned from China with the flu


I never get sick. At least that’s what I thought.

The flight from Chengdu, a city of roughly 14 million people in mid-west of mainland China, landed on the 23rd of December, just in time for three days of Christmas gatherings with friends and family. I felt well-tired for the entire festive season, but I put it down to jet lag. By Boxing Day, I knew something was amiss. I presented to my GP on the 27th when the pain and fever intensified, and then to the emergency department of Manly Hospital the following day, when my wife noticed my conversation was making no sense. This is not uncommon, but let’s say I was making less sense than normal. 

The grip this thing had over my body completely flummoxed me. For my entire life, if I felt unwell, all it took was some chicken soup and a lie down, maybe a good night’s sleep and I’d bounce back. This was different. 

The pathology confirmed a diagnosis of influenza B. Not the worst strain possible, but humbling enough. Ten days of debilitating pain helped me appreciate my mortality. 

In retrospect, becoming ill was hardly surprising. In the last few days before leaving China, I behaved like I was immortal. My foolish behaviour wasn’t in the class of tearing around on a motor scooter without a helmet or drinking rocket-fuel on a river, or any of the rather sensational ways that Australians risk their lives abroad.

I’d been visiting schools in Shanghai and Sichuan in central China, and trying to cram in as much cultural education as I could. Sichuan province in December is freezing, and there was precious little heating in the buildings. I have never been so cold for so long. I’d eaten from aluminium trays in school canteens and street food in night markets. One such dish was the famous Sichuan hotpot where you cook the food, at the table in the open. To visit the famous Chengdu panda park meant forgoing sleep and travelling on all manner of public transport. The direct flight to Sydney left at 3:00am from an airport without a Qantas lounge. After two nights of scant sleep, I have never been so tired, so cold and understandable, so vulnerable to infection. The exhaustion probably masked the early symptoms. It was hubris and I paid for it. And fortunately, no one in my circle of friends and family caught the disease.

Had my trip been last week, I would not have been allowed to return directly to Australia. I expect I would have been quarantined on Christmas Island or New Zealand. And that would have been the correct course of action given the circumstances we now face.

Fortunately, my visit to China was not in January 2020. It was December 2017. 

I have just spent the last ten days in Thailand, with my wife and daughter, as guests of a friend in Phuket. The trip was booked in early November, before the fires devastated the Australian regional communities that must now become our holiday destinations of choice. That thought that we should be in Bateman’s Bay or Broulee, where I have spent so many perfect summers, where the local businesses now need the urban dollar,… that thought tugged at my conscience, but there we were, in one of the most idyllic places I’d ever been.

At the Villa, were we three Australians, with a Hong Kong-based Swede, our host, and friends of his; another Swede from Stockholm and his Italian wife, and an American, also based in Hong Kong. We could not have wished for a more beautiful environment nor better company. We were all interested in the lives and perspectives of the others. Conversations flowed about the social, commercial and political dynamics of Europe, Asia, Australia and America. With bushfires, immigration, impeachment and n-coronavirus, there was much to talk about; much to learn. There could not have been a more stark contrast between the rarified perfection of the Villa and the tragic n-coronavirus epidemic unfolding around us. 

The impact of the virus was discussed often and news of trickled in. We shared own our experiences of travelling to Thailand; the presence of face masks from airports to beach cafes. 

Together, we tried to make sense of what we were hearing about the responses from various authorities. When the central Chinese government shut down Wuhan; when Carrie Lam appeared in front of the cameras in Hong Kong wearing a face mask; the Australian government’s plan to evacuate Wuhan-based Australians to Christmas island and Singapore’s ban on travellers from mainland China. Having been a recent traveller to mainland China, I couldn’t help but wonder what might play out in some of the worst case scenarios. What if Minister Dutton issued a quarantine order barring people who had visited central China in the last two years? What if there was a major outbreak in Thailand and that country joined the list of dangerous “countries of origin”? Would Christmas Island be our next destination? What if things got really bad? Like really, really bad? 

I recognised the catastrophizing for what it was. A descendant of an archaic human impulse for risk-avesion; an instinct that enabled my ancestors to predict and avoid danger. It kept them safe; the cost of a false positive being less than the cost of a false negative. 

We talked at length about different perspectives on the situation, all of which, I should say recognised the tragic and permanent loss to countless people. This is a dreadful and dreadfully complex and difficult situation. 

As we pieced together our impressions, questions rose to the surface. 

That the Chinese central government took decisive action to contain Wuhan and other cities – that seemed to be the right thing to do. To construct a purpose-built hospital in a week was impressive. 

I wondered, what did it take for them to recognise that action would be in everyone’s best, long term interests? What did they know? What did they see? What did they think? What did they do and why? What is happening as a result of it?

There was conversation about the proliferation of masks.  I believe there has been panic buying and civil disobedience in order to secure personal supplies of masks. So many people are seeking protection behind a light mask, despite the theory that airborne contagion is unlikely to be prevented by masks unless they are of a certain standard and used in a precise and disciplined way.

The most likely manner of transmission I understand to be from hand to mouth, eyes and ears. Don’t take my word for it. I am not an epidemiologist. Get medical advice from a professional. But if that were true, you’d be safer with a supply of disposable gloves. I hadn’t seem many gloves.

Wearers of masks were in the minority in most of the places I visited.

But they were there. 

People have worn masks before the n-coronavirus, for many reasons. Just because people are wearing a mask as a precautionary measure, does not mean that everyone wearing a mask has only chosen to do so after the news of an international outbreak. Some wear masks as a precaution to protect others. This is surely an entirely selfless act, to be admired. 

We talked about what we’d heard or read; some of the observations and explanations lined up. 

Not everyone who contracts the n-coronavirus dies from it. It seems the highest mortality rates are in the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. 

The smoking rates in Wuhan are very high. Did that have something to do with it? 

Millions quietly die from strains of influenza every year. They die because the available pharmacology can’t beat the virus in that person.

We wondered; what is so different about this one?

An article I’ve read in the February edition of New Scientist helped answer that question; people can infect others before showing any symptoms. That reminded me of the narrative about HIV AIDS in the the 1980’s and why that was so difficult to contain for so long. 

We were all disturbed by reports of sinophobia. Or in case that’s not a familiar term, anti-Chinese sentiment. At a time when the world is reminded how interconnected we are – how global cooperation works better with this kind of problem – we saw the rhetoric escalate and borders coming up.

Whether it’s a tweet or Facebook post inspired by ignorant racism, or a gleeful rant from a commentator pandering to a community of ignorant racists, or a calculated geo-political strategy specifically intended to damage the Chinese economy, all are loathesome and indefensible, because they do nothing to help solve the miriad of problems created by the virus. 

Like a bushfire does not respect state borders, a virus doesn’t care which country you come from. If this has the potential to pass from human to human, it is a human problem. Not a Chinese problem. 

The epidemic – it’s causes and consequences – are overwhelming complicated. Useful information and insights exist at every level. In the conditions in the Wuhan market and the culture and customs of the people who visited it. In the movement of global travellers and the global supply chains. In the behaviour of molecules – the organic chemistry of viruses and the human immune systems. It’s clear that getting this under control, and preventing future epidemics, requires collaboration and coordination at a huge level. It must be possible. It has been done before. SARS. Ebola. HIV-AIDS. Small pox. It has been done. It can be done. 

What makes that more complicated is the diversity of cultures, languages, … and let’s be realistic, political agendas or motivated reasoning that undermines progress towards a universal solution.

But these complications too can be overcome. As they have before.

Decisive action is necessary; but it must also be action that delivers the best possible outcome for the maximum number of people.  Some unfortunate people are going to take one for the team. We need good decisions. 

Wise decisions. 

Informed decisions.

The best possible outcome for the maximum number of people will only be achieved with a team effort. An effective global collaboration. Is there any other way to approach this?

This week we saw Brexit get done – or at least the beginning of Brexit getting done. We have also seen a divided US government acquit the President of abusing his power, with voting largely on very clean party lines. It feels like the barriers are continuing to rise. 

Right now, I am not carrying the weight of decisions to limit the global damage of n-coronavirus – to people, economies and nations. My decisions are those that impact on myself and my family and my circle of friends.  

But we live in a democracy, and thus we have a part to play in supporting the decisions of our elected officials. To support the ones that make sense, through advocacy or compliance – send me to a quarantine station if that’s what’s best – and to raise our voices when the decisions don’t make sense. 

As there are so many decisions being made, we can only respond to each one at a time; the decision to isolate Wuhan, to the decision to close borders and aiports, to separate a mother from her family at Sydney Airport. 

If the decision has an impact on the future of my family, our community, our country, our world, I want to know what has informed the decision, what is the aim, what is the reason; the rationale. Why is this best possible outcome? 

This is a moment for people who lead, to examine their beliefs and their competencies for communication and collaboration in times of crisis. Do you favour a narrower, opaque, exclusive approach to taking control of your destiny? Or do you believe in a open, transparent, inclusive approach?  Are you able to identify the impulse in yourself to employ one or the other, and judge which approach best suits the moment?  Can you achieve the optimal combination? Can you influence the approach that others take and create the optimal, collaborative environment so that the problem gets solved?  

Be it bushfire and water management, climate change and energy security, geo-political harmony and free trade – or matters more corporate and closer to home? Closing the gender pay gap, restructuring a business unit, achieving sales targets, keeping workers safe… the elements of observation and interpretation, communication and collaboration, they are ever present and universal.

And who is to say that any of these things are simply other people’s problems? That they are immune to the effects of them. 

I once believed I was unassailable. That the flu was someone else’s problem. Then I caught it. I’m lucky it was Chengdu 2017 and not Wuhan 2020. 

I thought I could be separate from the suffering of others. I was wrong. 

I do want to do something that might, one day, make a difference on a larger scale than posting a video. 

Please reach out through LinkedIn if you would like to discuss this further.


David McCubbin

Feb 7th, 2020

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