The journalist Kathleen McLaughlin has a serious medical problem that requires regular infusions of a blood plasma product that prevents her nervous system from all but disabling her. When she moved her reporting base to China almost 20 years ago, she had to confront a national medical system twisted by incompetence and corruption, especially the manufacture and distribution of fake medicines that were either dangerous or just useless.
So, she tried to do the right thing, importing her medicine openly and legally. But, because the plasma-based concoction was very expensive, she was regularly hit with thousands of dollars in Chinese taxes and fees. That’s when, as she describes it, her decade-long turn as an international blood smuggler began.
“I gently stacked a dozen half-liter glass vials into two soft-sided picnic coolers,” she has written in The Guardian. She hid them, wrapped in clothing, inside her suitcases and lied about it on her official entry card.
She says, “I didn’t investigate the possible penalties, believing I could talk my way out of it if caught. After all, I had a prescription.” But it turned out, she said, Chinese border security was about as fake as Chinese medical standards.
“There was never a physical inspection of my bags,” she wrote. “…There was no X-ray on arrival, no dogs sniffing out contraband.”
But that was several years ago. In recent years, President Xi Jinping has cracked down on a lot of aspects of Chinese society and Kathleen McLaughlin now gets infused in the United States.
But that’s not because of Xi’s tightening the screws on security. It’s because her American medical insurance company demanded she be treated at home, even if that meant a trans-Pacific commute every six weeks.
But her experience, paying off Chinese hospital personnel to let her be infused with her own smuggled drugs, helped her penetrate a system that left Chinese customers with a 50-50 chance that the medicine they were paying for was either, in McLaughlin’s words, “counterfeit or compromised.”
As China became a global economic power, those odds – half of Chinese medications were genuine and effective and half were neither – were offered and accepted around the world. The effects, Kathleen McLaughlin has reported over the years, are being felt to deadly effect by, among others, malaria patients in East Africa and opioid addicts in the American heartland.
Kathleen McLaughlin is a journalist who writes about science, culture and politics all over the world, including her home state of Montana. She has reported for The Guardian, the medical news site, Statnews among others.