The Chinese give foreigners strange looks

panorama : Most Chinese think AIDS is a strange disease affecting foreigners

There is no state aid for infected people. Song Pengfei is HIV positive. Wherever the 17-year-old shows up, people flee in panic. Harald Maass

Song Pengfei is alone when we first meet him. It's a cool morning in summer, one of those days Beijingers love to take walks in the parks. Pengfei is sitting in his room, silent in front of the television; he turned the sound down. The thin boy answers a few questions in a taciturn manner, his eyes glued to the screen. That changes the next time he visits a few weeks later. Sometimes he enjoys talking. Sometimes he shows something on his computer. What never changes: Pengfei is always alone. Because he has AIDS.

It is the father, Song Xishan, who tells us this story. So that he doesn't forget anything, he has written everything on paper in small, black characters: It is the record of a tragedy. A concatenation of misfortune, greed for money and ignorance. It's a story that keeps coming back in China. A country where AIDS is a "foreign disease" for many. A society in which the carriers of the pathogen are treated as outcasts.

In February of last year, "it happened", Father Song begins to tell. Pengfei was sixteen. The Song family is preparing for the Spring Festival in their village of Chaokou when Pengfei accidentally sits on the couch with scissors. Not bad, the wound on the thigh is small. The unemployed father, Song, gets some money from the bank and drives with his son on a truck to the district town of Linfen, to hospital number two.

The doctor at the hospital explains that the wound is infected and that a small operation is necessary. "You have to buy blood, preferably fresh blood," he advises the father and gives him the address of Mr. Li, a "Xuetou" - "blood dealer". Mr. Li promises to help: He will get a donor for 300 yuan. In the afternoon, Li shows up at the hospital with an 18-year-old teenager. Everything seems routine. A nurse uses a needle to draw 300 milliliters of blood from the young man into a bottle. Father Song is worried: "Are you healthy?" He asks the donor, who appears pale and thin to him. "Yes, I've done that a hundred times," he replies.

What exactly went wrong during the operation the next day is still unclear. "Splattered with blood from top to bottom," reports Father Song, who rushed out of the operating room. Pengfei is passed out and is shaking all over. The doctor asks for more blood. Mr. Li and his donor rush up. This time the blood donation costs 1,050 yuan. Then events roll over: the ceiling light goes out. Doctors finish the operation by the light of a flashlight. Pengfei survived, just about.

In an emergency, the parents decide to take Pengfei, who is barely conscious, to Beijing by train. The journey takes a night full of uncertainty. But Pengfei is being helped at Number 304 Hospital. Doctors in the province severed an important artery during the operation, and in Beijing the leg is being operated on again. Everything seems to be working out fine. But then Father Song is urgently asked to see a senior physician. "Your son has to leave the hospital. He has another illness," says the doctor curtly. Father Song is surprised. "But if he's sick, he can be treated here," he replies. The doctor presses around, then takes his father aside: "I'm telling you the truth. Your son has AIDS. He has to get out of here."

The news bursts into father Song's brain. AIDS! He only vaguely knows what that means. He had read about "Ai-Zi" in the newspaper. "It's a disease of gays and foreigners," he yells at the doctors' faces. How in the world is Pengfei my little son supposed to have got this disease? He leaves the hospital dazed. When the mother finds out, she gets a screaming fit and tries to throw herself off a bridge. "We only had one thought: Pengfei was going to die," says father Song.

The nightmare has begun. Beijing Ditan Hospital confirms the infection and alerts the health department. Wearing a face mask and plastic gloves, officers visit the family and record personal details. When they hurry to say goodbye, they leave mouth masks and gloves in a pile in front of the door. Pengfei has to leave the Beijing hospital after a month. The doctors tell him that he can only stay for treatment if he bears the costs. $ 50,000 for three years.

Exhausted, the family travels back to the provinces. There the neighbors shout: "Did your son come back to die?" Wherever Pengfei appears, people flee in a panic. Friends and relatives cut him. Dead rats, feces and broken glass fly into the family yard. One night the windows are broken. After all, the neighbors demand that the songs go away. "What if a mosquito bites your son and then us?" They shout. The school sends Pengfei a letter: As long as he is ill, he is "unfortunately not allowed to attend classes".

The authorities soon found out that Pengfei was infected during the blood transfer in the hospital in Linfen. The donor was a drug addict and HIV positive. The police report said he had sold his blood through Li at least 11 times. He was never tested for the HI virus. The Song family is demanding compensation. "It's the hospital's fault. They infected my son," says father Song and demands that the clinic pay for the further treatment.

Vain. The hospital admits that Pengfei was infected during the blood transfusion. Those involved shift responsibility to one another. For months, Father Song wrote letters to the hospital, the health department, the ministry in Beijing. Again and again he is held up, dismissed, and in the end threatened. It wasn't until a Chinese newspaper reported the case earlier this year that blood dealer Li went to prison and the hospital reluctantly paid 100,000 yuan, far too little for treatment.

The case was "closed", the government of Shanxi province has since said. All involved refuse the request for an interview. You would have already said everything: "It's the doctor's fault. I didn't know anything about the AIDS disease," says blood dealer Li when reporters from the newspaper "Nanfang Zhoumo" visit him in prison. Wang Zhaohu, attending doctor at the time, said, "The hospital had no rules for transfusion. The blood transfer was normal. The director is to blame." Director Cao Cheng was retired in March. He says: "I am no longer a director, so I have no responsibility. I also thought that AIDS only existed in the coastal areas."

The songs have been living in a small apartment in southern Beijing, near the clinic, for a year. There are still no signs that the disease could break out. But how long? With the money from the hospital in Linfen, they bought medicines from the USA. Now the money has been used up and the medicine will last until the end of September. Linfen Hospital has not paid the rent for the apartment since June. "At the weekend the landlord threatened to kick us out," says father Song.

Pengfei is sitting in front of his computer. A dark fluff has grown on his upper lip. Sometimes, he says, "I really want to get out of this world." Then he can't take it anymore. "Every day I wait for something to happen. But nothing never happens." He's not allowed to go to school. He no longer has any friends. "They are afraid of me," he says, and that is worse than the illness itself. "I am treated as if I were already dead."
© 1999

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