Fear and Masks Redux (Let’s Hope the Coronavirus is as Kind as SARS)

Reports are trickling in on the Coronavirus that’s shutting down China and threatening to be either the next black plague (death toll 50 million), the next Spanish Flu of 1918 (death toll also 50 million, only we had cameras and radios) or the next SARS (death toll a paragraph or two down).

I’m no epidemiologist, but I have read plenty of books in which plagues have been central plot points (sci-fi and otherwise), and I was living in China through a good chunk of the SARS epidemic of 2003.  This makes me in a strange way hopeful that the story currently unfolding from Wuhan and reported to be going predictably international turns out to be more like SARS, a quick google check of which reveals took somewhere in the vicinity of 9000 lives, at least according to the World Health Organization.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died.

So as these things go, perhaps best to hope for the odds of that pandemic versus either of the previously mentioned two.

I was living in Yangshuo, being put up for free as resident Westerner at a reasonably nice hotel called The Yang Guang (“Sunshine”) when word started going around about a new disease called SARS. Though nobody I or any of my various local acquaintances knew had come down with it, there was a great deal of fear in Yangshuo about the disease, which was killing tourism in one of China’s premier tourism hot spots, particularly among long-term China dwellers like myself. There was even talk that the government might soon block the roads into and out of town. Since I needed to make my then twice-annually pilgrimages to  Hong Kong to renew my visa, I decided the path of Wu Wei, the Daoist concept of going with the flow, would be to leave town. It was just before the Lunar New Year, and paying customers would need my room.

Among the publications I was contributing to at the time were The Albion Monitor, a political online site based in Northern California and The Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an alt-weekly print publication out of Fort Collins, Colorado.

The Bullhorn met an ignoble demise just a couple of years later, its publisher, Joe Rouse, taking the newspaper’s server down with it in a strange final Kamakazi act, and all of my physical copies of the Bullhorn have long been used to stuff cracks in the walls of my sister’s old barn. But I’ve found an early draft of the article I filed on my return to the USA during the height of SARS, which to hit the WHO up for figures again, query “how many people in the US died of SARS

774
The SARS outbreak of 2003

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died. In the United States, only eight people had laboratory evidence of SARS-CoV infection.

Not going to query same for Spanish Influenza , putting my journalistic reputation on the line by guessing without fact-check that it was larger by a couple of magnitude.  And on that cheery note – and hoping however counter-intuitively that this one turns out to be more SARS-like than anything else:

Greetings From Hong Kong: City of Fear and Masks

(Published in the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, Mid-spring, 2003)

It’s ten PM on a Friday night, and Asia’s busiest airport is nearly deserted. Upstairs at the restaurant overlooking the long rows of check in counters, the Filipino house band is doing a jazz light version of Santana’s ‘Oyo Como Va’ for the mask-clad wait staff and a handful of customers who have (to put a positive spin on the situation) their choice of seats. I’m eating a bowl of soup to cushion the antihistamines I ate on the bus to quell my springtime allergies; sneezing as surgical garb security guards take my temperature might complicate my travel plans.

Greetings from Hong Kong, the city of fear and masks.

Not long hours ago I was crossing the border from Shenzhen; I could sense a palpable dread hanging over Hong Kong before I even hit what passes for customs – an X-ray machine manned by bored-looking guards. Hawkers selling cheaply made surgical masks of dubious use at five for ten yuan lined the bridge from Shenzhen station. Masked people hustled hurriedly towards the border while unmasked women stood in front of the empty dim sum places encouraged travelers to stop in for a last meal in the mainland before heading into Hong Kong, where the price of dumplings doubles. And me, one traveling freelance writer, fresh from a sleepless 13 hour trip on a sleeper bus from so-far nearly SARS-less Guangxi province, wondering “what the hell am I doing going into HK now?”

But the trip was mandatory – my six-month visa was up. This was hardly an unusual situation – I’d been doing HK visa runs for years. So why, rather than doubling back after a quick trip to the visa authorities, was I heading to the airport to beat an unplanned retreat from Asia? Was I just taking advantage of SARS induced cut-rate ticket prices (USD$500 for a r/t from HK to JFK)? Or was my sudden decision to leave based on a healthy desire to get out before the SARS hammer really dropped? Was it conceivable that the Chinese government might declare the HK/Shenzhen border closed in some ham fisted attempt to make up for five months of mind-numbingly stupid handling of the epidemic? Any China writer who hasn’t had the word “inconceivable” beaten out of their vocabulary just doesn’t understand the Chinese government.

Entering HK, I found myself in a city in the grips of two concurrent epidemics. The first, SARS, is a virulent and deadly form of pneumonia about which little is known, and for which there is no known cure. SARS victims in Hong Kong number, as of this writing, XXX souls.

(Please fill in for XXX ~ Josambro 2020 to JSB 2003.

Get stuffed old man ~JSB 2003 —> Josambro 2020)

This includes the hundred or so who have died, the nearly 600 who have been declared “recovered”, and those still in quarantine camps. The second epidemic is by far the more widespread one, and while not fatal, is clearly serious; this epidemic is fear, and few in this city of 6+ million are untouched by it.

Scanning the headlines of the local papers, I had to ask myself if the media was somehow to blame for the virulence of this second epidemic, if the line between responsible information provider and purveyor of abject terror had not been crossed. Picking up a copy of Friday, April 25th’s Daily Standard, I came across a two page spread featuring three maps representing Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. Over each map circles were drawn to represent neighborhoods where SARS patients have been identified. The circles varied in size according to the number of patients in the area, and were reminiscent of blast radius maps. The largest circle on HK Island covered an area from Quarry Bay to Chai Wan. The actual death toll for the whole area; five, in a circle encompassing a few square kilometers. Were the illustrations meant to suggest that the presence of five Sars victims in the neighborhood represented mortal threat to a quarter of a million people?

Later on, over tea at Wanchai central, I posed this question to my friend Nury Vittachi, a columnist for the Asian Wall Street Journal, and probably the most widely read humorist in Hong Kong. Some say if you haven’t been mocked by Vittachi, you aren’t a HK player.

“Hong Kong is coming to the end of what I like to call ‘the science fiction phase’ of this epidemic, that is, the point where fear overcomes rational discourse about the problem.”

Nury tells me, his blue surgical mask (mandatory equipment for anyone working in an office) hanging around his trademark Nehru collar shirt. I suggested that perhaps the blast radius illustration met the public demand for science fiction, and then went back to discussing some ideas for a comedy review based on life during SARS time. Nury is, after all, a humorist, and the silent majority of Hong Kong must learn to appreciate that even the worst curse spits up an occasional gift, such as “SARS benefit #13 – masks level the playing field for ugly people in single’s bars.”

Still, the glibness of our conversation was as much a whistling-in-the-graveyard reaction as anything else. I’d only been in HK a day, and still flinched at the sound of a slight cough or clearing throat. I could only imagine what Nury, with three children and a life steeped in Hong Kong society, must be going through.

Nury donned his mask and went back to the office to spin out more much-needed humor, and I checked my email at a public terminal (noting Sars blessing number #14 – no waiting at public internet terminals). If Hong Kong was coming out of the science fiction phase, the email I got from my friend Phelim Kyne, a Dow Jones correspondent in Beijing, confirmed that Beijing’s was just entering the eerie grips of some post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick:

“Last night around 7pm I wandered out of my office building in the center of Beijing’s business district and made it three steps toward the pedestrian escalator before I registered that something was definitely wrong. I looked around and realized that it could have been midnight Sunday rather than high rush hour Wednesday – few people, little traffic and very, very quiet. It could have been a cheap local version of that 1970s made-for-TV post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick “Where Have All the People Gone?”

Channel surfing back at the Ibis North Point hotel (strangely unharmed in the center of the HK Standard’s blast radius) confirmed both the quiet of Beijing’s streets, and the panic buying sweeping Beijing’s supermarkets. CCTV9, China’s English language station was the optimistic exception, bringing reporters through a local greenhouse filled with produce in an attempt to allay any fears that food shortages were immanent. This, of course, came as no surprise. The official Chinese media’s Pollyanna-like handling of crises are legendary. If anyone wanted to cause a nationwide panic in China, the fastest way to do this would be to print up a million bogus copies the People’s Daily with the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly looking Chinese characters on the cover. The nation might never recover.

With the specter of SARS cover up hanging over the central government, The popular buzz among columnists is that SARS will be China’s Chernobyl as the ugly story of leaders more concerned with saving face than saving lives comes out and creates a backlash felt throughout the world.

Some question weather the current dearth of Sars cases being reported in Shanghai might be more then just a case of the fickle winds of contagion. Politics may well be involved. Since last year’s dubious changing of the guard, Beijing has been, at least on the surface, Hu Jintao’s turf. But Shanghai is Jiang Zemin’s town, and some are speculating that the reason that SARS figures for Beijing are being allowed to be made so public is part of some grim power struggle between the former president and his protégé; hazing rituals have always been par for the course for new leaders in communist China.

With a few hours to kill before heading up to the airport, I head out for some dinner. I pass by two nearly empty side-by-side Western-style eateries in the Quarry Bay district with opposing styles of reassuring their customers. One has a sign that reads “To promote a healthier environment, we encourage our wait staff to wear masks.” The other has one that says “to promote a less scary environment, we encourage our staff not to wear masks.” I skip them both and have some dumpling soup at some hole in the wall with no signs at all, then head for the bus stop. The streets are nearly deserted as the double-decker bus cruises through the heart of town. I pop two antihistamines, lest an ill-timed sneeze derail my travel plans. HK airport, in normal times among the busiest on the planet, is empty save for a scattered handful of passengers, and a small battalion of doctors, nurses and guards, all in full surgical garb. I feign nonchalance behind a sweaty mask while a nurse sticks a thermometer in my ear, hands me a yellow card with “the bearer of this card has passed through an infected area” written in ten languages, and waves me through to my check-in counter. The plane from HK is about half full, and nearly everyone is wearing a mask.

At Inchon, Korea, I switch planes and have my temperature taken again. I pop another antihistamine over the great lakes, contemplating whether deplaning wearing a mask will make me look like a responsible citizen or potential bio-hazard. In the end, I stuff the thing in my pocket. But the guard at JFK barely glances at me before swiping my passport, leaving my yellow SARS card not looked at before waving me through. White people with Christian names don’t fit the threat profile at customs, microorganisms be damned. At the taxi stand, I pause to discard the sweaty, crumpled face mask and with it, my sense of impending doom, in the trash.

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