TOO CLOSE TO CALL

A fa­ther’s plea to help his can­cer-stricken daugh­ter has em­broiled him in con­tro­versy. But the truth was un­cov­ered by jour­nal­is­tic dili­gence rather than ‘moral’ mood swings.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

Within half an hour on Nov 30, I went on a per­sonal roller coaster be­tween feel­ing mildly good about my­self to feel­ing duped.

It was all be­cause I had for­warded an ar­ti­cle on WeChat.

The ar­ti­cle de­tailed the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by Luo Er, a reporter in Shen­zhen, whose 5-year-old daugh­ter, Luo Yix­iao, was in in­ten­sive care for leukemia. He men­tioned the treat­ment could cost be­tween 10,000 yuan ($1,500) to 30,000 yuan a day. But in­stead of ex­plic­itly ask­ing for do­na­tion, he said for­ward­ing his ar­ti­cle would suf­fice as a third party would pay 1 yuan each time it was re­posted.

I nor­mally re­frain from do­ing such “good deeds” but Luo’s sta­tus as a jour­nal­ist, his re­count­ing of the de­tails of his daugh­ter’s sit­u­a­tion and his non-co­er­cion in seek­ing pub­lic support lend it cred­i­bil­ity. Most cru­cial of all, my brother re­cently died of colon can­cer and I had a re­flex of em­pa­thy for Luo.

Lit­tle did I know that when I was re­post­ing it to my friends on the app, the piece was be­ing de­bunked: Luo had three prop­er­ties in the city where real es­tate prices are sky high. He had vastly ex­ag­ger­ated his fi­nan­cial need.

The whole thing was a scam con­cocted by a com­pany whose goal was to ac­cu­mu­late eye­balls.

I quickly deleted my post, feel­ing bad about any­one who might have lost money be­cause of my im­pul­sive act. But I also thought things weren’t as clear-cut as they were made out to be.

Thanks to the timely re­ac­tion of lo­cal me­dia and rel­e­vant or­ga­ni­za­tions, the truth emerged the next day. And in­deed, it was not all black and white.

The med­i­cal con­di­tion of Luo’s daugh­ter was ac­cu­rate. In China, it would be a gross vi­o­la­tion of ethics if a par­ent makes up such a claim. It would be seen as a curse on one’s child.

Luo in­deed has three prop­er­ties — one in Shen­zhen, where the fam­ily re­sides, and two in neigh­bor­ing Dong­guan. The Dong­guan apart­ments have not been is­sued own­er­ship per­mits yet, which makes re­sale a bit hard. And all three units are far from be­ing highly val­ued.

Luo’s monthly salary is 4,000 yuan and he is the only bread­win­ner in his house­hold. It seems the fam­ily is on the lower end of the mid­dle­class spec­trum.

Luo’s deal with a mar­ket­ing firm was not com­pli­cated. The com­pany would pay him a min­i­mum of 20,000 yuan and a max­i­mum of 500,000 yuan for the to­tal num­ber of re­post­ings, ac­count­ing for the 1 yuan do­na­tion.

But I still can­not fig­ure out whether the dona­tions from read­ers of the post would go to the firm or to Luo. Any­way, a to­tal of more than 2 mil­lion yuan was raised be­fore Luo told peo­ple to stop send­ing money.

Now the part I would like to dwell on: the amount needed. The hos­pi­tal has re­vealed that the to­tal cost so far for the treat­ment of his daugh­ter is around 100,000 yuan and in­sur­ance has cov­ered most of it, with Luo pay­ing some 20,000 yuan out of his own pocket. This was later con­firmed by Luo him­self.

This is an amount most Chi­nese fam­i­lies can af­ford — even with­out putting up any as­set for sale.

In the past year I have learned first­hand that money is of­ten not the make-or-break fac­tor in treat­ing a can­cer pa­tient. Most peo­ple have the no­tion that the more money we can spend, the more likely our loved ones can be saved. But in most cases that I know, this is not true.

Sure, some treat­ments are costly and not cov­ered by in­sur­ance. But the cruel truth is, the mir­a­cle cure is sim­ply not there yet for what­ever amount of money. The rate of can­cer sur­vival de­pends on early di­ag­no­sis.

I got Op­divo, a very ex­pen­sive drug, for my brother two days be­fore he passed away. The doc­tor told us that it works well for most pa­tients with skin can­cer. For others, the like­li­hood of a cure is very lim­ited. Now, my sis­ter-in-law wants to donate the re­main­ing medicine to some­one who can­not af­ford it.

But the change of hand must be au­tho­rized and ex­plained by a doc­tor, I in­sist, be­cause I fear the re­cip­i­ent may be mis­led by the high value of the drug into think­ing it is a panacea.

I hon­estly be­lieve that China’s med­i­cal sys­tem cov­ers most who need help and the few who fall through the cracks can be helped by phi­lan­thropy, in­clud­ing on­line dona­tions in small amounts.

Judg­ing from all the re­ports, I have a feel­ing that Luo did not set out to dupe any­one.

When his daugh­ter was taken into an in­ten­sive care unit, it was nat­u­ral for him as a fa­ther to feel sud­den de­spair. He ex­ag­ger­ated the amount needed prob­a­bly be­cause he was try­ing to cover future med­i­cal costs. Also, as he said, he never ex­pected his ar­ti­cle to go vi­ral. Most such pleas never go out of one’s cir­cle of ac­quain­tances.

There is a streak in the Chi­nese men­tal­ity that fa­vors ex­ag­ger­a­tion and sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. Luo may be an ex­am­ple of it, but those who ac­cuse him of var­i­ous “sins” and “crimes” seem more cul­pa­ble. They rely on hearsay in­stead of con­duct­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions. The road to the moral high ground is al­ways crowded with peo­ple who think in ei­ther-or terms.

I salute those who un­cover fab­ri­ca­tions of “good deeds”.

About a year ago, there was a fa­ther’s post of his drive along with his teenage son to the western part of Sichuan prov­ince. The son was suf­fer­ing from al­ti­tude sick­ness, but the fa­ther did not know bet­ter. By the time they sought help at a lo­cal hos­pi­tal, it was too late.

This was meant as a cau­tion­ary tale for trav­el­ers from the plains who are un­aware of such risks. It did not carry a whiff of fi­nan­cial gain. But the hos­pi­tal men­tioned du­ti­fully checked its record and found no such in­ci­dent.

To date, I have no idea what the hoax was about. Maybe it was a nov­el­ist who for­got to state he was writ­ing fic­tion.

In the age of in­ter­net, even a to­ken ges­ture of giv­ing 1 yuan or for­ward­ing a post will re­quire a cer­tain fa­mil­iar­ity with jour­nal­is­tic ethics of prop­erly vet­ting and dou­blecheck­ing things. I just don’t know whether this is a sad or glad turn for the pub­lic.

By the end of Dec 1, Luo, Ten­cent, the on­line plat­form where the fund was raised, and other rel­e­vant par­ties is­sued a state­ment that the money would be re­turned — ev­ery cent of it.

Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

CAI MENG / CHINA DAILY

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