The Man Who Sneezed
My name is Zhang Wei, I am 41 years old and I live in Wuhan, China. I am writing this to share my difficult journey of the past year. Over the past many months, I have been accused of many crimes, I have been shamed, othered, mocked, cursed and more.
Let me give you a little background. I am an ordinary man from a small remote village in Central China. I got a basic education and got average grades throughout my years of schooling. Since there is little financial opportunity in my village and given my very average education even less opportunity, I decided to try my luck in Wuhan, where I hoped to find a job where I could make a basic living and support a small family.
I tried many different things, however ultimately nothing really panned out so I went into hospitality management. That is a fancy way of saying that I do the laundry for the towels at one of the big hotels in town that hosts many international travelers. While I am not famous or well known, I do take a lot of pride in my work and my ability to support my family.
Jobs are hard to come by here and my income is a little more than the national average, roughly $10,000 USD a year. I live in a small house not far from the wet market in Wuhan, where my wife of 15 years raises our two children and keeps house.
I have been doing this for over a decade and while my life is not particularly special, I am a happy person and I like my life. I never aspired to have major wealth or accomplish anything super noteworthy. I am happy with my lot in life. A wife, two children and a salary that pays my bills. We don’t live extravagant lives, and I save money here and there where and when I can.
And this where the trouble started. I heard there was a sale on some lower end meats at the wet market and I decided to treat our normally vegetarian family to some inexpensive meat as a special treat. I purchased a package of combined meats, basically the scraps of larger cuts of meat all mixed together and I figured my wife would be able to make stew or something that would be a tasty delicacy for our family.
My wife worked her magic and we had a wonderful dinner that night. My stomach started to gurgle a few hours later but I chalked it up to my body not being used to meat and tried to ignore that.
The next day I wasn’t feeling well but I couldn’t afford to take off too many days off of work so I went to work and hoped that this was just a cold and that it would go away. It didn’t. In fact it got worse and now I was coughing, having a hard time breathing and I felt like I had a bad case of the flu.
I went to the local clinic for a check up and they told me that in fact it was probably the flu and they told me to rest up and drink lots of fluids. I did what I was told and even though my breathing was quite difficult and I didn’t think that was associated with the flu, and my fever spiked quite high, after a couple of weeks.
In that time I tried to go to work as often as I had the strength, but my boss who saw me sneezing and coughing all over the towels as I was folding them, was concerned that some foreigner staying at the hotel would complain so he told me to go home until I felt better. I did finally feel better and thankfully my job was still waiting for me when I returned.
What I didn’t know was that that in that package of meat that I ate a few weeks prior, was some virus that the meat vendor wasn’t aware of and that I became patient zero for what was quickly becoming a national pandemic. It seemed as if everyone in my city was now sick. The authorities were closing down the stores and ordering everyone to stay at home in an effort to stop the spread of this strange virus. Apparently, this virus was now considered “airborne” meaning that it could be transmitted simply by someone breathing, sneezing or coughing in the vicinity.
In fact, over the course of the next few months it seems that my virus now spread to the whole world. Flights stopped going in or out of the country, stores were closed, businesses stopped, it was as if the whole world just grinded to a halt!
It was truly a strange time, and while I felt terrible about my part in all of this, it really hurt my feelings to have people talking about me as if I was some crazy or strange person. Why was everyone blaming me for just living my life and trying to work and feed my family? I found it almost laughable that they could somehow think that this whole catastrophe was my fault?
I am, as I said earlier, just a simple person trying to live a normal life. I am a nobody. I am not very powerful at all. I could count all the people that I know on my hands and feet. If you met me, I wouldn’t make much of an impression on you. I look average, I am just an average Zhang.
As the lockdowns continued and the world seemed to spin off its axis, I started to secretly feel a bit differently. I had always thought that my whole life would pass and no one would take any notice of me. Suddenly, I was the most talked about person in the world. True, it wasn’t in a positive light, but for the first time in my life I realized that I mattered. I didn’t intend on becoming infamous, in fact I don’t think I actually even did anything wrong at all.
What did become clear to me was that all this talk about our world being interconnected was really true. If an unknown and unnamed man – me – in China could shut down the whole world, clearly our lives and existences are more intertwined than we ever knew.
I only wish that my virus was somehow a good virus. Imagine it was a virus that somehow cured cancer? There would be no one left on the planet that would have to feel the pain and suffering and loss of that horrible disease! If only I was able to work in some kind of lab where they could have infected me with something positive that would spread like this pandemic did except instead of spreading disease, illness, death, sadness, pain and suffering it would spread health, recovery, life, happiness, joy and celebration.
Alas, fantasy’s are only real in the movies. Or so I thought.
It struck me, if I could have unintentionally caused so much havoc around the world, imagine how much goodness I could cause if I was actively and purposefully intending to impact the world.
Sure, I don’t have the medium of an airborne virus, but I do have other mediums that could go viral (pun intended). I could use my social media platforms to spread goodness and kindness. I could actually do something that matters and can, in fact, impact the whole world. I simply need to be creative in making it happen.
I heard of something called the butterfly effect. I am googling it and found that while it is debated if it is actually true and can impact the weather, the concept is most certainly true. Whether it is carbon emissions affecting the ozone layer and global warming or random acts of kindness and the concept of paying it forward does travel forward.
I think my takeaway from all those who are hating on me and Wuhan shaming and bat shaming me is that while I didn’t have bad intentions, in fact I didn’t have any intentions and yet so much still happened, then if I do have intentions and do try to impact the whole world I know that I can. You would be better off of learning from my unfortunate experience than hating on me for it.
Zhang Wei ultimately lost his job due to the downturn in the local economy. Foreigners were not visiting and the hospitality industry was crushed and along with it Zhang’s job.
Zhang decided to go back to school and use his newfound knowledge and existential realization that he really can impact the world. More importantly his realization that while he thought that he was a nobody that didn’t matter and in fact he was a somebody that really did matter, he was committed to really making a difference.
He graduated from state university with high honors and became a scientist in the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention based in Beijing. There he worked for 7 years on a vaccine for cancer and in fact he was successful. His work was speedily approved by all international governmental agencies that monitor vaccine development and became a standard vaccine given to children inoculating them from cancer for the rest of their lives.
He received the nobel prize for his cure for cancer and in his acceptance speech he pointed to the Great Pandemic of 2020 as the catalyst for this great development.
He lived till 109, surrounded by generation of family including tens of grandchildren, even more great grandchildren and even a newborn great-great grandchild.