Utter panic erupted in my own office today when the property manager called to announce that a worker in our office complex has been diagnosed with SARS. There are several towers in the complex, all connected, and the SARS patient doesn’t work in our tower. But mighty close.
The management has put up signs in the lobby with this information and is recommending companies let workers leave early today. Now nearly everyone is wearing a mask. There is only one topic in Beijing.
For months and months I have been planning my scheduled trip to South China, with tickets to fly out of Beijing on Sunday. Now I am utterly terrified and depressed. I told my best friend there was nothing to worry about and he is in transit this instant, scheduled to arrive here at 9 pm. I honestly believed it was safe, but now it doesn’t seem possible to be so sure.
The panic is palpable. My colleagues are so on edge. Today they all took me out to lunch to say their goodbyes, and when we arrived at the restaurant it was — yes — closed because of we-all-know-what. We went to a nearby Japanese place (food was wretched) and we all sat there kind of morosely, trying to chit chat, but everyone was obviously wrapped in his/her own thoughts. It was literally on our way out the door to lunch that we received the news about the SARS case in the building, and it added a new dimension to the whole drama, driving it home.
I was loooking forward to travelling around Beijing with my friend, going to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the neat restaurants I’ve found. Now I have only one desire: to get out of Beijing as fast as I can.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.