Imagine testing positive for COVID-19. How concerned would you be? How scared? It’s likely that you’re young and enjoying a non-compromised respiratory system, so you’d fall into the majority of cases described as “mild”. But the word “mild” seems to obfuscate just how hellishly intense a run of COVID-19 might be.
In early February the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention ran a study on the first 44,672 confirmed coronavirus cases in Wuhan. From this number they graded patient health conditions on a scale from mild to critical. And while the good news was that 81 percent of cases (36,160 people) were classified as mild, the bad news was that the word “mild” described anything up to pneumonia.
From this example, we can see that the actual experience of the disease is obscured by stats and imprecise terminology. So for a more human description, we asked four people recovering in hospitals what coronavirus feels like. Our respondents lived in four different countries: Spain, China, Thailand and Italy. Two were male, two were female, and they ranged in age from 22 to 42. They were different people in different circumstances, but all described a medical journey similar in horror and duration. And all got sick thinking it couldn’t happen to them.
“I just woke up feeling off,” said Jay, a 36-year-old Singaporean living in Bangkok. “My whole body had aches so just as a precautionary measure I kept myself at home.”
It was Sunday so Jay wasn’t expected anywhere. He left his apartment once to buy a thermometer, but otherwise spent the day in bed thinking he’d shake off whatever he had. “When I’m sick it usually resolves itself after some rest,” he explained. “So I waited the whole day on Sunday, but then on Monday, when I woke up, I didn’t feel any better. That was when I started to feel a bit concerned.”
Jay dragged himself out of bed and headed to a nearby private hospital where he tested positive to COVID-19 and was hurriedly transferred to Bangkok’s Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute, a specialised center where most of the nation’s infected are channeled for quarantine. “It was probably six or seven in the morning and I didn’t sleep much the entire night due to fever and body aches,” he said. “My mind was racing.”
Each of the people we spoke to described the disease’s first act in similar terms: a sense of discomfort followed by a fever, followed by a steep decline.
Several thousand kilometres away, over in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began, a 37-year-old office worker named Yaqi came down with similar symptoms, which she also attempted to shrug off with sleep. She left work coughing, headachy, and with a climbing temperature that was making her clothes damp. Reluctant to go home in case she passed on whatever she had, she checked into a nearby hotel and fell into bed. But the next day, January 22, she woke up feeling worse.
“I waited until 9 AM and then hesitantly told my husband about it. He was so frightened. A coworker texted to say a few people at the office had also been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. My social media was filled with various messages of 'Hang in there, Wuhan', but my heart was desolate. My husband bought me a traditional Chinese medicine, but my stomach felt uncomfortable after consuming it.”
From there her husband attempted to have her admitted at the local hospital, but by that stage Wuhan’s health facilities were in chaos. She was told the hospital was too overwhelmed to offer either a bed or a test to confirm whether she even had the virus, and was instructed to go home and ride it out.
For the next few days Yaqi’s temperature hovered around 38.5 degrees, which brought on a procession of hyper-coloured nightmares. Then a little over a week after first feeling sick, she started to vomit.
“I couldn’t eat anything,” she said. “I threw up all the medicine that I ate and streaks of blood started to appear in my vomit. My husband was very troubled and went out, trying to find the most famous hospitals and doctors.”
Yaqi describes trying to watch a current affairs program on her phone to distract herself, but at a certain point she could no longer recognise the speakers or comprehend what they were saying.
“All of January 30 my high fever persisted,” she said. “I took some traditional Chinese medicine from a famous Guangzhou physician. I was still vomiting, and there was more blood in my vomit. I videoed myself eating and vomiting. My family members broke down.”
Finally, the tables turned when a doctor friend of Yaqi’s managed to get her a run of antiviral drugs, which took in conjunction with a heavy-duty antibiotic known as moxifloxacin. The combination was a haphazard experiment but she got lucky and began to feel better.
“It was the first time in 11 days that my body temperature was normal,” she said. “I worshipped the holy medicine and thanked the heavens.”
Each of our four patients said the disease’s apex lasted for between 10 and 14 days, even if their symptomatology wasn’t the same.
From a Barcelona hospital bed, we spoke to a 22-year-old advertising student named Nil who was also riding out COVID-19. Nil’s illness had begun after a trip to Milan from which he returned feeling mysteriously hot and uncomfortable. “Maybe I touched a surface that was infected, or maybe I touched my mouth or eyes with dirty hands. I can’t be sure,” he said.
Nil immediately went to a doctor who put him in quarantine and he was diagnosed with coronavirus the next day. From there he was unable to receive any friends or family, while he went through a range of symptoms similar to Jay and Yaqi’s.
“In my case, I had a lot of general discomfort, fever, headache and mucus,” Nill explained. “But as the days went by, I also had muscle pain, joint pain, nausea and vomiting.”
What’s interesting is that in Nil’s case there was very little coughing or difficulty breathing, which illustrates coronavirus’ diverse clinical profile. The virus causes a list of common ailments, but the list isn’t absolute. Not all patients cough. Not all vomit. The only truly reliable thread seems to be that for younger, healthy people, the clouds begin to clear after around the two-week mark. Certainly, this was true for the people we spoke to. But the most important lesson, according to Nil, was that the illness was complete hell and governmental messaging needs to be taken seriously.
“We have to be aware that we don’t live alone,” he implored. “If the government and the authorities are taking measures and there are recommendations, it’s for a reason. It’s not to fuck up Semana Santa for you, or all the plans that you had with your friends, but because we’re living in a medical emergency and we have to be responsible.”
When she fell ill in late February, Rossana thought she just had the flu. As a sales manager, she’d been traveling a lot in previous weeks, to Nuremberg, Paris and Madrid.
A week later, Rossana started feeling better and was even going out with friends again. “Then I had a relapse – dry cough, fever, sudden fatigue.” Rossana took herself to the hospital – wearing a mask – where she was tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for 48 hours awaiting the results. When the results came back positive, she said it was almost a relief. “I’d been sick for days and nobody knew why. But then, I had a panic attack. I was afraid for me and for my loved ones.”
Rossana was moved to another room in the hospital, which she shared with a 61-year-old biologist from the hospital who had also tested positive. “Medical staff came in three times a day to measure our temperature, oxygen and blood pressure,” said Rossana of her time in the 15-square-metre room.
After a week in the hospital, Rossana’s fever went down and her lungs were clean – she was discharged. She’s back at home, but taking all possible hygiene precautions to protect her housemate. **“**At the moment I’m focusing on recharging my energy,” she said, noting that the mental part of her recovery is now the most difficult.
LESSONS FROM THE VIRUS
Yaqi too had developed a grim respect for the virus, which she described as “not just a normal flu.” At her lowest point she says she was sure she would die, and began tapping out her final words on her phone. And like Nil she wants to now highlight the importance of social distancing.
“We have to protect ourselves as it is very contagious. Once there is breathing difficulty you should immediately seek medical help, wear a face mask, and protective goggles. Quarantine yourself. Defeat the virus.”
And finally, back in Thailand, Jay said he’s still suffering from a shortness of breath but feels hopeful. At time of writing, he still needs to test negative to the virus twice before he’s discharged and says he’s using his remaining time in quarantine to spread the same message:
“I’m no hero,” he told us. “I just need to present the facts so that people know their next steps to prevent any potential spread."
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA. Additional reporting by Valerio Moggia.