SARS Becomes an Institution

A week ago I spoke with a colleague in Hong Kong who described the atmosphere there as “surreal.” Now that same atmosphere has drifted north to Beijing, where the number of SARS cases just doubled again, approaching 600.

Two weeks ago one young lady in my office wore a mask. Today there are seven. I wish I had a camera with me on the subway after work yesterday, when I was just about the only one in the car not wearing one. I wrote an earlier post (can’t get the link thanks to The great Firewall) on how every restaurant hires an abundance of guards who stand in front of the building for no apparent reason. Suddenly, as of Monday, they all started to wear surgical masks.

Schools are still closing left and right. The government is now forbidding newspaper reporters to leave their respective cities to cover events/stories. I just received the following email from the office manager: “We have alcohol and wipe cotton available to you on the sign-in desk, please wipe down your computers and telephones daily.” This sort of thing is now commonplace. SARS has become an institution, another aspect of our daily lives.

One doesn’t often have the chance to watch an entire society transform this dramatically over so short a time. In some ways I feel very lucky that I can be here in SARS City to observe the phenomenon, and I am actually getting a bit sad knowing that I depart in just four days for my 3-week trip through South China, followed by the exodus to Singapore. History in the making….
[note: updated and title changed, 4:55 pm China Time, April 23]

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