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    Life After the Test Comes Back Negative

    Thousands of COVID-19 patients have been given the all clear in China. But many feel the trauma is far from over.

    On March 12, after Lin Qing met a long list of requirements to prove she was free of the virus that causes COVID-19, she was released from quarantine and could finally return home. But despite the good news, it was difficult to feel relieved.

    While Lin devoted herself to returning her suburban home to a livable state, her husband of more than 40 years was still battling the disease in an intensive care unit elsewhere in the city.

    Over the past six weeks of treatment and recovery, Lin has often thought back to the days before the couple received their diagnoses. She blames local officials who initially downplayed the risks, but also herself for not picking up on clues that her husband was infected — he’d complained of feeling tired and cold. She can’t help but think that, if she had connected the dots earlier, he could have been back home by now. “It’s really my fault — I ignored all of those signs,” the 64-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

    Lin is one of a growing number of people across China who have recovered from the novel coronavirus that began spreading late last year in her hometown Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province. Though 3,248 people in China have died from COVID-19 as of Thursday, the number of people who have recovered, currently 71,150, is quickly catching up to the total figure of infections, at 80,967. But like Lin, many survivors are dealing with guilt, shame, and fears the disease might return. Those brave enough to resume their normal lives feel ostracized.

    In 2004 after the SARS epidemic — which was caused by a similar virus but was smaller in scale — a survey of around 280 recovered SARS patients found that 16.4% felt depressed and 10% felt anxious three months after being discharged from the hospital. One in 10 was diagnosed with PTSD. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic is seemingly winding down in China, psychological experts are preparing for the mental health effects that are sure to follow.

    Before January, Lin, and her husband enjoyed a simple but comfortable life in retirement. They tended their garden, raised their dog, and helped their granddaughter with her homework. When she prepared meals, he would play the piano. Then, in the afternoon of Jan. 25, Lin’s husband fainted in the kitchen. “I was on the living room sofa reading messages about the outbreak of the ‘new pneumonia’ when suddenly I heard him saying ‘oh, no!’” says Lin, who, like all survivors in this story, requested the use of a pseudonym out of privacy concerns.

    Both Lin and her husband tested positive for the novel coronavirus and were transferred to different hospitals. “Since Dec. 9, 1978, the day we got married, we always stayed together,” Lin says. “It’s not just that it was the first time for us to be separated for such a long time — to be apart under such circumstances, it’s been really hard for me to bear.”

    With just mild symptoms — a cough and a low fever — Lin gradually got better, and less than a month later tested negative for the virus in two successive exams and could soon move to a quarantine facility. There, she often spoke with other women, who told stories of how their husbands suddenly died. She worried about her own husband, whose condition had quickly deteriorated after being admitted to the hospital.

    Doctors sent Lin and her daughter only a few messages each day, rarely with good news. They haven’t dared ask for more, knowing how doctors were overworked during the epidemic in China, resorting instead to scouring the news in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Lin’s husband during a TV report about ICUs. “So far, no news is perhaps the best news,” Lin says, adding that this is how she comforts herself every day.

    Lin feels the women who have lost their husbands are somehow better off. The constant uncertainty can be debilitating, and from time to time all the news about COVID-19 overwhelms her. In those moments, she says, “I just want to forget everything about the pandemic.” Afraid of overtaxing her daughter, she doesn’t know who to turn to with her emotions. She’s resorted to sending messages to her husband’s phone, knowing he cannot hear them in his current state. “I put all my anxieties and worries into those voice messages. I hope that one day, when he’s recovered, he’ll know how we made it through this tough time.”

    “From falling sick, to being hospitalized, to getting discharged, only one phrase could describe that whole process — a living hell,” Du Mingjun, a psychological counselor at Hubei Psychological Consultant Association, says, recalling how a patient described his feelings to her. Since mid-February, Du has been receiving more phone calls from recovered patients. They fear the virus might reoccur, following reports of discharged patients testing positive again. At the same time, they are struggling with being accepted back into society.

    For people who survived COVID-19 in places with relatively few cases, resuming their everyday lives is especially tough. “In a small city like the one I live in, one confirmed case will become the talk of the town,” Zeng Fan, from Shantou in the southern province Guangdong, tells Sixth Tone. The 33-year-old was one of 25 COVID-19 patients in the city of 5 million. Soon after his diagnosis, Zeng found out his name and address were circulating online.

    Something similar happened to 20-year-old Xiao Ranran, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, along with her parents. When neighbors learned about the three cases in their residential compound, Xiao received abusive messages full of curses and threats. “They exposed our personal information online, and they monitored our apartment,” Xiao tells Sixth Tone. “No matter how I tried to explain, they would still swear at us.”

    Xiao, a college student, came under such psychological pressure that she was diagnosed with depression and underwent counseling. Apart from the bullying and worries about her parents, she received setback after setback when CT scans showed that her lungs had recovered, but 14 successive nucleic acid tests were still showing positive results for the virus. While more and more patients were discharged from the hospital, Xiao, who was the first confirmed patient admitted to the hospital, remained stuck in the ward.

    “I felt mentally broken down. I couldn’t accept those test results, and I felt like a total mess in my mind,” Xiao recalls. “I cried a lot, and I lost interest in everything. I became sleepless and slow, and I’ve had strong headaches and nightmares.” She doesn’t want to think about how her neighbors will react if she and her parents move back home. 

    Zeng, the patient from Shantou, already experienced how the people around him responded to his return. He was discharged from the hospital on Feb. 12, and, after 14 days of quarantine, went back to the office. He immediately felt like an unwelcome guest. Some colleagues greeted Zeng with subtle suggestions that he’d better rest up at home. Others were blunt: “If there’s any chance you’re still in trouble, we’d all be in trouble,” he remembers them saying.

    People tense up whenever Zeng coughs in the office — a result of the damage COVID-19 did to his lungs that can still result in occasional shortness of breath. “Everyone is avoiding going near my desk. They’d rather walk in a big ‘S’ than in a straight line,” he says. “Maybe their actions are unintentional, but they really hurt.” His neighbors are avoiding him as well.

    Zeng has become suspicious of himself too, and recently called local health care providers to see whether it would be possible to get tested again. Whenever his son or a colleague coughs, he reflexively thinks he must have infected them, that it’s his fault.

    “This kind of emotion — shame — is very unfair,” says Du, the counselor. “Society imposed that feeling on them.” In Wuhan, local authorities seal the front door of recovered patients with paper strips as a way of enforcing another quarantine period, she says. “It’s a standard work process that isn’t wrong in itself, but it will put a stigma on the infected patients and their families.”

    When her quarantine was coming to an end, Lin, the Wuhan retiree, had a fight with her daughter on where she should go after being discharged. “My daughter asked me to live with them, but how can I do that?” Lin says. “My grandchild is only 11 years old, and maybe there’s still an infectious virus in my body.”

    Luckily, she has been welcomed back by her neighbors, and the company of her dog Echo — who had been taken care of by a nearby pet store — lends her some relief. “Echo makes the home vibrant again. But it is still incomplete without my husband,” she says. 

    After staying in an ICU for 50 days, Lin’s husband is still experiencing high fevers and cannot breathe on his own. Though he opened his eyes for a few seconds several days earlier, a doctor told Lin that, even if he recovers, his brain is so damaged, he might end up in a vegetative state.

    “I disinfected his piano the day I came home, but I guess there isn’t a chance he could ever play it again,” Lin says. “But as long as he can come home, I will spend the rest of my life taking care of him.”

    Additional reporting: Huang Jijie; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: Patients enjoy the sunshine at a boarding school that has been converted into a temporary quarantine facility in Wuhan, Hubei province, March 10, 2020. Xiong Qi/Xinhua)