• Nathan Kim

Patient Zero

M


January 19th 2020


M held the lives of 7 million people in his hands, and he didn’t even know it.

M awoke to the sound of his alarm clock. Another day closer to leaving. He had known for 3 months that he was going to switch schools. Despite packing up the last box he still felt nervous, change always made him feel nervous. It was bittersweet; sad to be leaving a home he loved, lucky to have his family by his side.

He and his little brother Mason had been going to the same school for 9 years now and he had been expecting to finish High School before even thinking about leaving Hong Kong. But their father’s new job offer in the Philippines found a way to lure their entire family to the unfamiliar country.

The last time M had traveled anywhere outside of the city of Hong Kong was Christmas. Since then, rumors of a virus started to spread and his mother forbade any traveling that required more than a taxi. Now, they were expected to be in a car, on a train, and halfway across the South China Sea by plane. His mother’s plan to reduce contact was out the window.

M felt trapped in the small hotel room as his parents frantically packed all their loose clothing and belongings off the floor. It was now a day before they were leaving. He just sat with Mason on the couch of the room, moved his curly black hair out of his face and looked out the window at the bustling city. People were still out and about on the cramped streets.

“M? Can you get your stuff ready? We need to go soon!” M’s mother called, while balancing three bags in her arms.

M didn’t answer, just continued to stare out the window, dreaming of what it would be like if he didn’t have to leave. He thought of all the things he would miss. His school, friends, house, the busy sounds of Hong Kong, and his future there.

“Dad? Don’t we need the masks?” Mason was checking through all the cabinets of their room looking for the facemasks.

“Yes we do, I put yours on the table by the door, make sure to pick it up before leaving,” M’s father pointed towards the desk near the exit of the room.

M felt sick inside. Anxious. Or he thought it was anxiety, an anxiety that made him feel stuffy and drowsy. He grudgingly dragged all his belongings to the rolling bag and packed it tightly. He felt weak and tired from all the worrying. The tension of the virus going around didn’t help either. But for now it was an alien to Hong Kong. M eyed the masks near the exit while mindlessly zipping up his bag. He sniffed his plugged nose a few times then got up, doing a final sweep across the room for any other items.

“Time to go now… Say goodbye to our room,” M’s father led Mason out the door. “M, lock the door once you’re ready,” he closed the door after everyone else left to give M some time.

M forcefully coughed to clear an itch in his throat. He was exhausted from the slow move. He picked up his dark green coat and changed into his grey shorts. After pacing around the room a little more, he cleared his throat again and left the room.


The drive to the airport was about 45 minutes. 45 minutes more on the streets of Hong Kong M thought. He peered through the window of the taxi gazing at the tall beautiful skyline. His home.

Cough. Cough. M cleared his throat some more trying to keep his discomfort from his family.

“M, are you okay?” his Mother looked at him cautiously.

“I’m fine, just feeling a little tired…” M didn’t bother to look away from the window and just blankly stared at the packed streets across the river.

“Wait, M, where’s your mask?” Mason suddenly barged into the conversation.

“Dang it! I must have left it at the Hotel!” M rubbed his forehead remembering the view of the mask clearly sitting near the light switch before he left.

“Do you have an extra one?”

The last thing he wanted was to have another thing to be anxious about. He rummaged through his bag hoping to find a scarf or anything to cover his nose and mouth with. Nothing.

“I didn’t bring any more masks…” M could tell his mother was beginning to become concerned also.

“It’s ok, I’m sure we will be able to find disposable masks at the train station.” his father tried to comfort him. But he knew masks were becoming harder and rarer every day in Hong Kong. No one was thinking about risking getting the virus, some even say the virus already made its way into Hong Kong and just incubated before throwing the city into chaos.


Once they all arrived at the train station everything passed so fast. The last building M would ever be in before leaving Hong Kong.

When the taxi came to a stop, the station was loud and crowded. Everyone was rushing to get to or get out of the station. But not M, he treasured every second and was willing to give anything to stay seconds longer.

“Okay, there’s the gate. Ready?” M’s father walked slowly towards the glass wall that escorted the passengers to their designated trains.

“Can I quickly go to the restroom?” M instinctively did anything in his power to stay away from the gate.

After his father showed him to the restroom, he shortened his strides and took each pace with hesitation.

When he made his way into the bathroom, he blankly stared at the mirror. He look at the reflection of himself and others around him. They stared at him suspiciously concerned. M remembered he didn’t have a mask. So he quickly finished everything up, washed his hands, and made his way out the bathroom. As he was walking out, he felt the itch in his throat again. He coughed.

When he looked up, people around him eyed him with concern. As if he were caught on fire. He then locked eyes with a tall man with brown eyes in a black suit, without a mask.



W


January 28th 2020


W was leaving the train station after a long ride when he bumped into a concerned looking boy near the exit. They locked eyes, he just stared at the boy wearing a dark green coat and curly black hair covering his forehead. He must have thought that W was going to scold him because he quickly apologized and ran towards his parents. W quickly forgot about it and continued to walk towards the exit of the station, and the entrance to Hong Kong. Finally home, he thought. W was on a business trip to the U.S. for the news company he worked for. As he was making his way to the road, he noticed something weird about everyone else in Hong Kong. He hasn’t been in Hong Kong since 40 days ago and was hoping to return to it the way he remembered it. But there was something different and he couldn’t figure out what. While waiting in the pickup road for his crew to arrive, he wondered what he would be researching for the upcoming weeks. He hoped for a hot and interesting topic, but he was oblivious to what was about to come.

“Hey W!” W heard from a distant van, it was his crew, “welcome back to the hectic city!”

W hopped into the car and greeted them all.

“Is there something I missed?” he asked, noticing something seemed odd.

“The question is, where’s your mask?” R asked him.

“My what?” W answered cluelessly, slightly concerned.

“I told you guys, W, you may be an excellent journalist, but does he actually ever watch the news?” R laughed as he handed him a mask and exchanged glances with the other crew members. “You may work really hard, but you’re so stubborn, no matter what we can’t convince you to ever watch it.”

“Wait, is that why everything looked so weird when I came? What happened here?” W was always paranoid when he wasn’t aware of something. He eyed the mask suspiciously, he couldn’t remember the last time wearing a mask. Normally, even when he was sick, he’d just stay home and refrain from meeting others. And now, as he looked out the window to the waves of people moving, they were all wearing masks as if it were as basic as wearing socks.

“It’s a virus that’s going around, if you watched your own news channel, you would see things about it. Well, the important thing is that we think it made its way into Hong Kong.

A virus? In Hong Kong? The entire city wearing masks? W immediately thought of his time in Hong Kong during the SARs outbreak. Offices closed, schools paused, he didn’t go to work for days. He thought it was impossible for such a thing to happen again.

“It can’t be that bad,” W still doubted the news, he wasn’t interested in imagining such a thing.

“Well, instead of trying to convince you, read this,” one of the crew members handed W a folder that said: contents of virus report. “Here’s your next case reporter.”

When W opened the folder, there were lists of countless articles about cases and deaths in China, and other surrounding Asian countries.

“Hong Kong is not in a good state right now, and you have to tell the world that,” R said as he opened the van door when they stopped by W’s house. “See you in a few days.”

Once W arrived at his house, he dropped all the files on his desk, spreaded them in an orderly fashion, and scanned them all night. W slowly began to realize his danger of being exposed to the virus. A city shut down? Thousands of cases? Hundreds of deaths? Worry swarmed W as he anxiously continued to read, he began to recall all the times he could have been exposed to the virus. Maybe when he was at the airport in the U.S., in the airplane, or in the train station, there were countless places W was in contact with others.

Then he remembered, at the exit of the train station, when he was right by the restroom, a kid, the one who wasn’t wearing a mask, the one with the curly black hair. He coughed on him. Was he sick?

He began to wonder what would happen if he was sick. He would be stuck in his house and would have to be trapped there until he could make it to the hospital. W was beginning to become concerned about losing his chance to work on the case. If there was anything the news company didn’t want, it was a reporter infected with the sickness speaking about the very first few cases in Hong Kong.

He continued to research preparing for his case and checking for symptoms he may have. After hours of scanning through tens of articles, printing documents, and drinking coffee, W began to feel lethargic and cold. Unusually weak. I should probably sleep now, W thought as he noticed his unusual exhausted feeling.

For another week, W continued researching and writing about the few virus cases that had swept through Hong Kong. 8The first death was identified in Hong Kong some days ago on February 1st. W began to feel progressively more exhausted and weak.

It was finally the day for W to go and do his report at a private high school to research the effects a virus as such could have in class. As his team was driving him to the school, he felt an uncomfortable heat around him. When he arrived, a man named G greeted him at the entrance. There was a set up in front of the school that looked like a line in front of a scanning thermometer. Since the first death, concerns about the virus creating outbreaks in Hong Kong dramatically increased.

As W walked with the man to get scanned, it seemed like his anxieties of being sick had settled. Once the thermometer scanned over his forehead, it beeped red saying 38.7ºc and he locked eyes with the man, alarmed.



G


February 10th 2020


G was on his early shift at the school to check the early guests’ temperature before entering the building. He was concerned about the school’s situation and the risk of his students catching the virus. The school got news that a news reporter would be coming to later that day and assigned G to welcome him. G, knowing the circumstances Hong Kong was in, wanted the school to be as presentable and clean as possible to the public. He prepared the newly purchased distance thermometer and set himself up in front of the school waiting for the news team to arrive.

Whilst standing in the breezy morning weather, G thought of the virus, how it started as a minor sickness like the common cold, and now it was hitting Hong Kong like a storm triggering panicked regulations by the government. There’s no way that it could get worse, right?

A moment later, G saw a van approaching that parked by the curb. He stood up, and walked over to the man exiting it and greeted him.

“Hello sir, you must be W,” G reached his hand forward but then quickly retracted it remembering that a handshake was “no longer a proper greeting”.

“And you must be G, so will you be showing us around the school today?” W said with an unusual stuffy voice. G assumed that it was just the masks.

“So, let’s not waste any time and get going.” G said motioning to the door.

G went ahead to the thermometer, picked it up, and lifted it towards W’s forehead. It started to beep red. G’s heart dropped. He stared at W and looked down at the number displayed on the thermometer, it said 38.7ºc. He scanned his own hand with it to make sure it wasn’t broken, it said 36.5ºc. Then he lifted it and scanned it again on W’s forehead, it beeped and displayed the numbers 38.5ºc.

G was stunned, he didn’t know what to do, he was never told what he should do when he scanned a patient with a fever, he never thought he would in his entire life. W looked just as worried, he just stood there and avoided eye contact with anyone else. G checked the numbers again, it still displayed the same number.

W’s camera crew had all their things packed and started walking towards the entrance also.

“What’s wrong?” one of W’s crew members asked casually.

G didn’t know what to say, he was not sure what he had to say or do, should he call the police? Should he send W home? Is it OK for him to be in his vicinity?

“I... I have a fever.” W said in a nervous tone.

“What?” the crew said in unison. “Are you sure, check again,” one of the members signaled G to scan him again.

G, without a word, lifted the thermometer and scanned W, it beeped.

“Sorry guys, I don’t think we can record today.” W turned back, and looked at the buildings trying to locate his house. “I can walk home from here, I should reduce contact, I can go to the hospital to get properly tested.” W seemed calmest. “Sorry, G, make sure you all wash your hands, I don’t want to be the fault of any of you getting sick.”

“We’ll tell your boss what happened W, we hopefully won’t also have to be tested.” the crew packed their things and followed distanced behind W.

G reached out to say something, but then hesitated and just turned around and walked back into the school. He saw the principal waiting at the hall of the school looking puzzled that G was slowly walking to her with his head down.

“Where are the guests?” the principal asked leaning over to see if there was anyone behind him.

“Um, the reporter had an unexpected fever, so I sent him back.” G said regretfully.

“Oh…” the principal was expecting a response but she didn’t know what to say. “Well I guess that means that you’ll be waiting here until school hours begin.”

“I guess so. Thank you,” G was still processing everything and repicturing his encounter with W… He turned and walked further down the hall towards his classroom after saying bye to the teacher.

“Wait G!” she called back at him a few seconds later. “Did you get in physical contact with him? Or anything that would get you sick?” she also wanted to keep the school open, and G was a teacher that would come in contact with many students.

“No, but, should it be OK for me to stay?” G wanted to keep his students safe from the virus. However, the contact with the potential virus with W was minimal and he didn’t have physical contact. He knew the odds where in his favor, but there was still a clear risk. “No, I think I’m fine, it was only around a minute I was in his vicinity.”

G was confident that his infection chances where significantly low and he had a class to teach. But little did he know that this choice would spiral out to an outbreak outstandingly larger than he would be able to imagine.

Later that day, G taught 6 classes, met over 90 different students, and there was no turning back now. G forgot about the minor chance of him possibly being sick, there was also no way for him to tell, he sat at the front of his classroom looking at the 30 or so wooden desks parallel to each other facing him, he eyed the clock as its hands slowly approached to the beginning of homeroom indicated the end of his day. He was eager to go home and relax, it was an unexpected day for him, the echoing of the deep reminded him of the crazy experience he had. He barely even remembered what W looked like, but the 38.5cº was still prominent in his head.

The sound of students walking into the classroom cut his thoughts. A student of his named A approached him at his desk.

“Hello Mr. G, I have some work from yesterday you requested me to let you review,” she said after handing him a paperclipped worksheet.

“Thanks, I’ll give it to you after homeroom,” G got up and opened up the multiple pages of paper. He played a video for the class and whilst it was playing he scanned the sheets swiftly. He turned the pages carefully with his hands.

He was finished as the video was closing up. The bell indicating the end of school rang and the majority of the students rushed out of the classroom after saying goodbye. In a flood of noise, A came to see G again.

“The work looks good, finish it over the weekend and you’re done,” G smiled under his mask and handed the paper back looking up.

“Thank you,” A said as she received the paper. She locked eyes with G and slipped the work into her blue striped bag.

A


February 11th 2020



The famous annual mid-year party of my school was approaching. The entirety of 9th grade was hosting the event this year and we have big plans to make it the best one so far. But with new rules placed due to a new virus spreading around Hong Kong, I’m not sure if it would still be on the 18th.

Mr. G even spoke of a probability that it would be cancelled due to the increasing number of cases. But he didn’t seem too concerned about it closing. He’s always active at these parties, especially with his magic station where he performs ot us. No one, or at least my classmates really know why it was such a big deal that a virus was spreading, but with most of the things happening in Hong Kong right now, I became used to the sudden changes.

Regardless of it being postponed or cancelled, I was still planning to go to the party and so were my classmates –and most of the school. Since the virus started appearing on the news, they spoke of it being minor and schools were allowed to resume as long as students did temperature checks. Excluding the recent death that occured, there weren’t many recent events about the virus. There would be no reason for the school to stop this event. Right?

Lost in thought, I stopped myself before thinking of something so unlikely. Remembering the feedback Mr. G gave me about my final assignment, I returned to focus on finishing that by the 14th so I could relax before the day of the party. I sat down on my desk, committing to work until I have to sleep.


The next day, I woke up tired but ready for another day. I got on the bus early to arrive at school before the other students. I was planning to arrive early to get some additional work done also. When I arrived by the entrance of the school, however, there was a relatively large crowd with a few people holding cameras and a policeman waiting in the front of the school. The principal, Ms. M, was also with the people outside. As I approached the crowd to get past them and into the school, one of the school guards nearby stopped me.

“Sorry, you can’t enter the school from here, let me take you through the back,” the guard said in a fatigued accent. I could tell that there was some kind of commotion going on by how tired and disorganized it seemed.

“What's going on?” I asked. I was expecting that it had something to do with the virus, but a part of me didn’t want to hear about it. I still had hope that the party would take place.

“Some news reporters showed up earlier today, and we don’t want them coming closer to our vicinity,” the guard was clearly not telling me something but I figured it would be better off with me not knowing. I wanted to ask if the reporters have anything to do with the virus, but it barely affected me, so it shouldn’t be my business to ask about it. As I was taken through the small corridor behind the school’s main entrance, I pictured the hundreds of people in our school walking through here at once. There would be so many people in this tight space, I was glad that I decided to come early.

After thanking the guard, I made my way to my classroom through the spacious hallway which was soon going to be crowded with four grades worth of people. When I entered my classroom, Mr. G wasn’t there, but I saw his bag stilling on his chair, and the textbook open on his desk. No other students arrived yet, so I arranged two chairs and tables together, got comfortable, and began working.

Quite a few minutes passed and I heard the school opening bell ring, but no one else came into the classroom yet. It was still completely silent and thought I saw all the school buses parked outside the school, there were no students near the entrance.

Shortly, after I became distracted, I heard voices in the hall, one of them was Mr. G’s voice, so I stood up and went to the door to ask him where all the other students were. But when I exited the room, I saw that he was speaking with Ms. M.

“I scheduled a checkup for you on behalf of the school this upcoming weekend, the moment they receive the results, I want you to send them to me,” she said, handing Mr. G a few sheets of paper. “Just hand this to the receptionist and they’ll send you to Doctor. Y.”

“Ok, I will do that.” Mr. G kindly took the paper but I saw a hint of frustration in him.

“Once we get this contact issue sorted, the reporters would leave us alone,” Ms. M turned around to go meet the guard. “Okay, just let them in in small groups, have them be distanced!” she yelled across the long hall to the guard who was escorting groups of students through the backdoor he led me through.

Distanced? Why distanced? I approached Mr. G, he was just standing in the hall reading the papers he received analyzing it carefully.

“Hello Mr. G,” I said, acting as if I had just arrived.

“Oh, hi A, what’s wrong?” Mr. G somehow saw that something was bothering me without me saying a word.

“Where is everyone?” I asked the question and right after, a bunch of our classmates came through the door filling the dead-silent school with friendly noise.

“I’ll explain what I can when class starts,” He said and he walked with me into the classroom.

I overheard all the other students also discussing the people at the front of the school and heard them making theories about why they would be heard. It was certain that the school wouldn’t be able to hide it from us forever.

“You all are probably wondering why it’s been such a weird morning today,” Mr. G began speaking without any hesitation and the entire class went silent, intently listening. “Well, as you probably know, since the start of this year, Hong Kong has been experiencing a virus that’s been getting people really sick. Yesterday, the school came in contact with a reporter that had the virus.” He kept pausing as if he was filtering some things before saying it. We don't get to know everything. “Because of this, we have to increase the regulations towards keeping everything here clean and most importantly, everyone safe.”

We all knew exactly what the next thing he would say would be, but just patiently waited hoping for even the slightest chance that it wouldn’t be it.

“And unfortunately,” he continued. “We will no longer be able to do full school days.”

Murmurs started rising in the classroom, we all expected that the mid-year party would be postponed or cancelled. A silent sigh of relief covered the room and no one mentioned it after that.

“Anyways, let’s continue, please get your computers and worksheets ready…” and after that, the day was normal. As if there was no virus, or reporters outside trying to get in.


The rest of the few days flew by because of the half days and the only thing everyone was talking about was the mid-year party. The elephant in the room to discuss about the party was never mentioned but glances constantly alluded to it. It felt as if we as students had the responsibility to decide if we would go to this party or not. There were rumors about adding maximum capacity rooms in public areas and restricting social gatherings. Was this really the right thing to do? I wasn’t aware of the exact risks of going to the party, people said that there would be over 50 students in the school gym. But I was almost sure that most of the people concluded they weren’t going due to rising cases of the virus in Hong Kong.

It was the day, I had to make the choice to go or not. I wasn’t too concerned about the result of this party, afterall, how much would 50 people do?

I quickly got dressed later that afternoon and prepared to go to the party. Without a second thought, I exited my house and took the bus to school. I was slightly late when I arrived, there were already most of the people there lounging in the large room. There were a lot more people there than I expected, at least 60 people, I guess everyone’s been thinking the same thing as me.

“Hey A!” one of my friends sitting near the back of the gym called me.

“Hi, what’s up?” I asked, just expecting to make small talk.

“I guess you decided to come too.” she almost sighed as if she was disappointed.

“Well, quite a few decided that.” I said pointing out the obvious.

“Do you think this is a bad thing?” Then she turned and looked at me, genuinely asking the question as if what we were doing would end the world.

“How bad could it be? What would be the chance of one of us in this room having a virus be? There are only a few hundred people who are sick in all of Hong Kong right now.” I tried to comfort her. “Let’s just enjoy the party. What’s the worst that could happen?” I grinned and stood up.

“You’re right, well, what should we do?” She got up with me and wandered around the area through the large group.

“I don’t know, well, Mr. G always has his magic station at these parties. Do you know where he is?” I remembered my conversation with him the week before. “He said he’d come to this one and perform again.”

“Ok, let’s go find him, I’m sure he’s somewhere in the crowd,” we went deeper into the loud party without a worry in the world.


But we never saw Mr. G that night.

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