Only three New Yorkers had died when Han, a 22-year-old masters student at NYU, caught a plane back to China. It was mid-March, and the WHO had just declared a global pandemic. Han spent an uneventful fortnight quarantined at home in Harbin, the northeastern Chinese city where her parents lived. She passed a series of antigen and antibody tests and was freed in early April. The family celebrated with meals out, and she even flew to Shanghai for a short weekend trip.
This unremarkable student’s itinerary is now well known across the country. Officials say that she is the super-spreader behind at least 50 locally infected coronavirus cases in Harbin. According to official numbers, China has flattened the curve, an achievement symbolised with Wuhan’s liberation earlier this month. But even the official tally of new infections just won’t fall to zero, and Harbin’s cases make up a worrying proportion of it – three quarters of the country’s new local infections in the last week. Officials say there are at least 75 confirmed cases. Harbin is fast becoming the new Wuhan.
Mr Chen, 87, was the first to test positive. He had been in and out of hospital already due to his age. Officials say he had been infected by a friend, whose daughter lived in the same building as the Hans. For whatever reason – perhaps Wuhan made the Harbin officials lax – Chen was able to infect nearly 80 people in a hospital cluster. They call it nosocomial infection, when it’s the other patients on your ward and their spouses, the doctors and nurses and their families who are infected. Two confirmed cases have even popped up in neighbouring regions, and can be traced back to this Harbin hospital.
Contact tracers turned up at Han’s door.