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"THE GREAT MALL OF CHINA"


"You must stay at home."

Those five words intoned by the Prime Minister ushered in what proved to be merely the first of a series of lockdowns in Britain's response to the global pandemic. Blond Boris endeavoured to be as Churchillian as he could, notwithstanding that he had missed a whole series of COBRA meetings on the crisis and had been rather more engaged in preparing for his next wedding (his third) and his next parenthood (his sixth?).

That was 23 March 2020.

This is 10 years later.

One of the millions watching that television broadcast was Sally Roff who was then an intensive care unit nurse in London's St Thomas' Hospital and was now a feature writer for a major medical journal.

At the time of that broadcast, neither Boris nor Sally imagined that, within two weeks, he would be admitted to her hospital and very soon afterwards transferred to the hospital's ICU. Sally herself did not attend to Boris and, especially when the government subsequently offered nurses a derisory pay rise, there was much black humour directed at the staff who had saved the Prime Minister's life that, in all the circumstances, perhaps they shouldn't have bothered.

Sally was burnt out by her ICU experience in the pandemic. Those awful intubations, the repeated turning of the patients, the terrible deaths, day after day after day, all ground her down when she could take no more and she left the profession. Even after all this time, she was so angry that the government had handled the crisis so badly: the late lockdowns, the confused messaging, the shortage of PPE, the awarding of PPE contracts to ministerial chums, the chaos of testing and tracing, the mess over Covid passports, and above all the early deaths of our most vulnerable in care homes.

Although utterly exhausted and thoroughly dispirited by her service in the ICU, when she left she was so relieved that she herself had not been struck down by Covid. And then, in spite of being double-vaccinated, she caught the Delta variant - first detected in India - which was so much more infectious. And then so many of the symptoms, especially the aching limbs and the debilitating tiredness, continued for months and months and months. Again, in spite of the passage of time, she was so, so angry that restrictions were lifted too early and that support for long Covid sufferers like her were so inadequate.

Before Covid, she was in the best relationship of her life, looking forward to the future, and thinking of starting a family with her partner. Her work with seriously ill Covid patients and then her own experience of the virus put more and more pressure on her relationship and eventually her partner could take no more and he gave up on her. It might have happened anyway. She was not great with men - something to do with her absent father when she was a child - and she was better at saving lives than relationships. By the time she regained her health and found a new relationship, it was too late to have children. She felt cheated and so, so, so angry.

Above all, she was angry - no, bitter would be a better description - about China. Why had they unleashed this plague upon the world? And why, even after all this time, were they so secretive about its origins? As a nurse, she knew that viruses were inevitable and that the way we treated the planet meant that zoonotic diseases - where there was a jump from animals to humans - were becoming more prevalent. But she held China responsible for Covid-19 and she was certain that, even after a decade had passed, the Chinese had not revealed the full truth about how the virus emerged and spread.

For most of the following years as this anger seethed beneath the surface, Sally worked as a manager in the care sector where staffing vacancies continued to be high long after the double whammy of Brexit and Covid and where funding through the mechanism of increased national insurance proved wholly inadequate. More latterly, she had moved to become a writer on a prestigious medical journal and had risen to become features editor.

It was inevitable that, 10 years after Covid swept the planet, the journal would devote one of its quarterly editions to the global pandemic with articles looking at mutations and variants, treatments and vaccines, how different nations had responded and the variable outcomes, the role of the World Health Organisation, and measures both national and international to cope with subsequent pandemics. There would be much use of info-graphics with charts and graphs and diagrams showing the numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths by time, by nation, by capita.

That left the BIG QUESTION: where did Covid-19 come from? By agreement with the journal's editor and with some special funding from medical charities, she was going to go to China and see if, a decade later, she could shed any more light on this most fundamental issue.

Sally's current partner Gary - a radio reporter - was not happy about her pursuing such a quest. He insisted on a code word in case there was a problem and he needed to mobilise legal or diplomatic resources to help her. They settled on: EXCALIBUR. That shouldn't mean anything to the Chinese but it would indicate that Sally needed an emergency extraction from China.

**********

Over the last decade, intercontinental ballistic missiles had gone hyper-sonic but long-haul aviation had become slower and cleaner as aircraft now used a variety of sustainable aviation fuels, so Sally had plenty of time on her flight from London to Beijing to ruminate on some of the changes between 2020 and 2030.

Of course, Britain had changed.

As was both predictable and predicted, Brexit had been an economic disaster. Together with Downing Street's appalling handling of the pandemic, it had encouraged the Scots to vote 'yes' in the second independence referendum. In turn, that had provoked irresistible calls for a new Northern Ireland Border Poll. An independent Scotland had immediately applied to join the European Union and many London politicians proposed that, what used to be known as the United Kingdom and was now called Britain, should apply at the same time for re-entry. The death of Queen Elizabeth II had led to a substantial rise in republican sentiment which fed into a demand for a new constitutional settlement that included an elected House of Lords and proportional representation for elections to both Commons and Lords. The poverty riots had led to a wealth tax.

China itself had changed.

It had to happen sooner or later and it did occur sooner rather than later: China had become the world's largest economy. Of course, given the very different sizes in population, the United States still had a much larger per capita GDP than China but the shift in power was palpable. Meanwhile China's growing assertiveness in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea and the West's wish not to appear weak had been bound to lead to conflict. It came in what the Western powers called the Battle of the Paracel Islands but China termed the Nine-Dash War (a reference to a well-known Chinese map depicting the extent of the country territorial claims). Fortunately it had only lasted three months: once each side had lost an aircraft carrier, honour seemed to have been served.

Above all, the whole world had changed.

The climate crisis had grown worse - and worse. Almost every nation had experienced weather records that were the hottest, the coldest, the wettest, the windiest. Heatwaves, hailstones and hurricanes. Floods, fires and famines. The news became so repetitive that the mind could hardly take in the horror of it all. Much of the Maldives, the Seychelles, Kiribati and Fiji were now under water. Whole cities - included New Orleans and Jakarta - had been simply abandoned. COP30 finally agreed to effective measures to create a carbon-neutral planet. Meanwhile we never really saw the end of social distancing and mask wearing at least on a worldwide basis. SARS-CoV-2 - the cause of the Covid-19 disease - was the seventh known coronavirus to infect people. The eighth had come along much sooner than expected.

**********

Sally made most of her enquiries in Beijing. She spoke to a range of political, medical, and media contacts using carefully-selected interpreters and always trying to keep a low profile. To cover her tracks somewhat, she visited some of the main tourist sights: the Forbidden City, Mao's Mausoleum, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace. She even took a trip out to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall to the north-east of the city.

But inevitably she had to go to Wuhan, the site of the first Covid outbreak, in an effort to understand where the virus originated and how it had spread so fast. She tried to find medical staff and local government officials who had been involved in the outbreak and encourage them to speak anonymously now that there had been such an interval of time. As in Beijing, she endeavoured to muddy the waters of her visit by taking in some local sights: the Yellow Crane Tower, the Guiyuan Si Temple, the East Lake.

She even went to the Hubei Provincial Museum where there was in fact a special exhibition on Covid a decade on, extolling the brilliant success of the authorities in combating the initial outbreak. Indeed it was an amazing story: a total lockdown - not the weak efforts in Britain - with Wuhan completely closed for two months and nobody allowed in or out of the city. A new hospital had been built in a mere 10 days.

And, of course, in both Beijing and Wuhan, she frequented a range of restaurants, since she so loved Chinese food. At one time, China had bred some 500 million pigs a year. Now, for environmental reasons, the country was a world leader in cultured meat. For the first time, she tried some - and really it wasn't bad at all.

The last of Sally's dozens of conversations was with a Chinese doctor whom she had befriended at St Thomas' Hospital who had quickly returned to his home city of Wuhan to assist with the initial crisis. At first she had known him as Dr Li which is a very common family name but, as they become closer, she called him Jun which she later learned means 'army' and was a name often given to children born in the 1970s and 1980s.

She was not expecting to learn anything new from him: he had been in London when the first cases emerged in Wuhan and had only just made it back to Wuhan before the city was locked down. She had done all her research and just wanted to run her thesis past him. In any event, she did not want to put her friend at risk.

At her suggestion, Sally and Jun met at a shopping mall called the Asian Trade Plaza located at the foot of Hongshan Mountain in the city's University District adjacent to the East Lake. She chose a cafe called "888". This was her little joke. She was feeling good about her project and pleased to be going home soon and eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture because in Mandarin it sounds like the word meaning to generate wealth. Jun would get that. She was there a little early but he was bang on time.

"Ni hao" he announced.

"Ni hao" she echoed.

The basic default greeting in Chinese which literally translates as 'you ok'.

"I guess we should speak English now" said Jun helpfully.

"I guess so. That about exhausts my Mandarin!"

They exchanged pleasantries about how each was, how the family was doing, how cold this winter was. Even ten years after leaving Britain, Jun's English was excellent.

But then inevitably, if somewhat guardedly, they addressed the BIG QUESTION.

"So", introduced Jun, "did you find out the answer to your question? Did you work out where Covid-19 originated? Do you think it was the Huanan Seafood Market or the Wuhan Institute of Virology? The American intelligence agencies could never reach an agreed view."

"I don't think it was either', declared Sally. "I don't think the virus came from China at all."

Jun looked surprised and then quizzical. "Well, that puts you in the same position as many Chinese. They think it came from America."

"That's ridiculous."

"Really?", he reacted. "The Spanish flu of 1918 probably came from the United States. Maybe Covid-19 did too."

Sally knew the history of the major pandemics: "Well, the so-called Spanish flu certainly didn't originate in Spain. As you well know, Jun, to maintain morale, censors of the First World War minimised the early reports of illness in Germany, France, and Britain, while the newspapers in neutral Spain were free to report the epidemic's effects such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII. But, you're right. It might have come from the USA. When America entered the war, there were mass mobilisations for the army and there are some suggestions that it originated in the military facility of Fort Riley in Kansas. But we can't be sure."

"Well, there you are, my friend."

"No. I could counter that, although we still don't know for sure where the Black Death of the mid 14th century originated, medical geneticists have suggested that all three of the great waves of the plague originated in China. So, there."

Jun looked confused and a little angry: "That's nonsense."

"Well, on all these questions, we have to go where the evidence takes us. The Chinese have to stop blaming the Americans for all the ills of the world. Covid did not come from the United States. And it didn't come from China either."

"OK. So, where did it come from?"

"North Korea."

"You're crazy, Sally. What makes you think that?"

"Look, I can't reveal my sources and it would place you at risk to know too much. But I'm pretty confident now that I know the identity of Patient Zero".

"I'm listening."

"I won't give you his name. But I will tell you that he was a senior researcher in a top secret biological weapons research facility on the western outskirts of Pyongyang."

"But why would they develop such a weapon when they already have a nuclear capability?"

"Think about it, Jun. It would be madness for the North Koreans to unleash nuclear weapons on South Korea. Even if the US did not immediately retaliate with nuclear weapons of their own, a few hours of wind and a few turnings of the globe and North Korea would have nuclear contamination all over the country. In the Cold War, it was called Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD for a reason."

She paused to let this idea sink in.

"No", she continued," I think the plan was to place containers in dozens of locations in South Korea where there are mass movements of people: shopping malls, railway stations, evangelical churches. Then, using timing devices, to release the virus as simultaneously as possible throughout the country. A couple of weeks later, when millions had been infected, hospitals were overwhelmed, morale was at rock bottom, and political and military chains of command had been massively compromised, launch a ferocious attack across the demilitarised zone."

Jun was shocked: "This sounds like fantasy. You still think this is the North Korean plan for a pre-emptive strike?"

"No", Sally declared. "According to my sources, that sort of approach is now considered too slow and too blunt. They have a different plan. I understand that, if a pre-emptive attack was intended, they would first use a fleet of very small, very smart drones to assassinate leading political and military figures to 'cut off the head of the beast' as they put it."

"That's horrendous. I hope that the South Koreans have a defence capability against such a drone attack."

Sally responded: "I'm no military expert but I imagine the Americans have given the South Koreans something like the systems they've given the Israelis and the Taiwanese."

Jun looked perplexed. "Can we get back to Covid and Patient Zero? If you're so sure he was from North Korea, how does that fit with all the stories about a location here in Wuhan being the source of the first outbreak of the virus?"

"Well, I don't need to tell you about the closeness of the North Korean regime to the Chinese leadership. Pyongyang would not want to develop a biological weapons programme of this kind without liaising with Beijing. As the world realised 10 years ago, a major biological research facility in China is right here in Wuhan.

I understand that, sometime in early November 2019, the senior researcher from North Korea visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology to exchange scientific data and knowledge. The conversations didn't take long: the scientists in Wuhan knew all about the coronavirus; they knew about the capacity to weaponise it; what they didn't know was that their visitor was infected with it. He showed no symptoms.

Once his work in Wuhan was done, Patient Zero was in no rush to return to North Korea. His return flight was not due for another day and he had a list from his family of all sorts of food, clothing and technical gadgets that they wanted him to purchase for them. Things impossible to find in North Korea. Things readily available in almost any large Chinese shopping mall.

I know where he went in the city: Hankoujiefang Avenue. I just don't know for sure which location he visited: it was either the Wuhan Plaza or the International Trade Plaza or probably both. They are on the same street and, at the time, both had around 80,000 square metres of retail space.

Patient Zero could find everything he wanted and did so. He called into one shop after another after another; he stopped at several cafes and restaurants; he used the public toilets. In short: he spread Covid all over the place. No wonder, a couple of weeks later, the cases started to pile up in Wuhan."

Jun was now looking really worried. "We have a saying in Chinese: 'Hao qi xin sha si mao'. You have a similar saying in English: 'Curiosity killed the cat'. Are you intending to write about this conspiracy theory in your journal? In this country, journalists who write uncomfortable pieces can disappear. You could be at great risk, Sally."

"First of all, it's not a conspiracy theory. I'm sure of my research. Second, of course I appreciate the sensitivity of the information and I won't file the story from China in case it's intercepted and I'm detained. My editor has given me a deadline for the copy and, I admit, it's very close. So I'm going to fly on to Japan, where I have friends, and file the story from there."

"Alright - but you do realise that you might never be allowed into China again after publication of your article in Britain?"

"I would have to live with that. This is such an important story. The people of China deserve to know the truth as much as others around the world."

"Even if they hear the story, Sally, I don't think they will believe you. And, even if they believe you, they won't care. Most Chinese - even educated ones - have no interest in politics generally or democracy in particular. They're interested in making money and in spending it. This suits the Chinese Communist Party perfectly. It is as if there is an unwritten and unannounced compact between the Party and the people: 'You leave us to run the country and we'll leave you to make as much money as you can'."

"That sounds like a very cynical view of your country."

"No, it is an honest view. What you have to understand, Sally, is that in effect China is now one great shopping mall. Everyone wants to earn more and spend more and the shopping mall is today's equivalent of what Roman emperors provided to the masses: 'bread and circuses'. Think about it. where did Patient Zero spend all his free time? In shopping malls. Where are we having this conversation? In a shopping mall."

**********

Next morning, Sally was on a flight north from Wuhan to Beijing where she took a connecting flight east from Beijing to Tokyo. All her meeting notes and the final text of her long article were securely under password protection on her lap top which in turn was safely with her as hand luggage.

They must have been over the East China Sea, around midway between China and Japan, when there was a sombre announcement from an air hostess. Sally didn't understand the Chinese or the Japanese versions but the English one was clear enough. A technical fault had been discovered, it was not serious, but it could not be corrected in the air. They would need to return to China to have the matter sorted out. The nearest Chinese facility was in fact a military base and therefore passengers must close all blinds for security reasons.

This sounded really suspicious. Sally mentally rehearsed a sentence in Mandarin that Jun had given her - just in case. On the assumption that her mobile phone would be immediately confiscated, the sentence was 'Wo shi ying guo ren, xian zai ji xu da ge dian hua' - a tough tongue-twister to memorise - which translated as 'I am a British citizen and I need urgent access to a telephone'. Also she found herself repeating in her head over and over the code word agreed with her husband - as if she could ever forget it (but she was really nervous).

The landing was smooth but Sally braced herself. She feared that Chinese security personnel would enter the aircraft as soon as it landed and take her away for interrogation. But nothing unusual happened and passengers were allowed to leave the aircraft in the usual order and manner.

There was one of those mobile corridors that linked an aircraft and airport facilities. It had no windows so she could see nothing. Since this was a Chinese military base, that figured. Once in the airport, she followed the other passengers down blank corridors that she could well believe were typical of a military facility. Perhaps it really was a technical fault. She started to relax - a little.

The passengers turned a corner and were presented with a sign with huge unfamiliar letters. In a moment of fearsome revelation, Sally observed that, underneath in much smaller English, it read: 'Welcome to Pyongyang'.


ROGER DARLINGTON

Published on 20 September 2021

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