Fear of SARS outstrips virus

Contagion: In a few weeks, drastic steps to try to contain the new disease have changed the face of Hong Kong.

April 06, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HONG KONG - It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the viral panic gripping this packed territory of nearly 7 million people became a theater of the surreal, but the visual evidence seems to be spreading here faster than the virus itself.

It could have been the dog wearing a surgical mask on the street. Or the city health workers in biohazard gear looking straight out of a science-fiction movie, setting up rat traps at a contaminated building. The bar waiter wearing protective gloves as he served drinks Friday night was simultaneously reassuring and unnerving; the fact that the locals didn't even comment on it reflected how the disturbing has become routine.

Doctors and experts here continue to puzzle over the mystery illness known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which has increased fourfold here in the past two weeks, infecting 800 people and causing 20 deaths. Efforts to halt the disease have become ever more desperate.

The police demonstrated as much Friday, announcing a manhunt for 58 families who have fled rather than be confined at two isolation camps. Investigators are using a computer tracking system designed to pursue murderers and serial sex offenders to find the families, who lived in an apartment building that might be tainted with the virus. Once found, the families could be compelled to undergo health checks with "minimum force," the police said.

Hundreds of others from that building, where a number of residents have fallen ill, were rounded up and are staying in former holiday parks that have become this outbreak's equivalent of leper colonies.

Relatives cannot get in to see them, food is dropped off by workers wearing protective clothing and roadblocks bar the entrances, with police standing guard in masks and the occasional plastic suit and hair cap.

"No outsiders can go in," said Fred Woo of the government authority administering the camps, Hong Kong's Civil Aid Service, when a visitor asked to enter on a recent evening. "Everything is very, very volatile. ... We don't want anybody outside getting contaminated inside, and we don't want anyone inside contaminating people outside."

This once confident and bustling island gateway to Asia has become an island of untouchables. Businesses and tourists are staying away; parties, conferences and a Rolling Stones concert have been canceled for fear of SARS spreading in crowds.

In the past two days, perhaps several hundred thousand fewer residents than normal crossed to the mainland for an important annual holiday in which families visit ancestors' graves.

Schools, already closed a week, will remain shut for two more weeks, Hong Kong's schools chief said, urging families to keep children indoors.

"We want to call on parents not to let children roam around," said Arthur Li, secretary for education and manpower. "This is not a time for them to play around."

Families that wanted to get away for extended vacations are gone, and the people stuck here keep their distance from strangers and public facilities. Some put themselves under virtual house arrest, while others are ordered to work at home by their employers.

When people do venture out, many wear masks; the especially cautious use gloves and sterile wipes. Few people shake hands anymore. Those who go mask-less might be regarded with suspicion, especially if they make the mistake of coughing or sneezing on a bus, train or elevator.

The irony of all this is that in some ways, Hong Kong might now be cleaner and healthier than it has ever been. People diagnosed with SARS are in quarantine wards or in the isolation camps. The schools are being bleached every day - even though they are empty of students. Coin laundries and drugstores are booming, perhaps the only businesses to benefit from the citywide malaise over SARS.

And there are the ubiquitous masks, sold on street corners and convenience stores, available in different colors and patterns for the discriminating fashionista. Hotel and restaurant staff and retailers all wear them. Even criminals wear them, if the stories are to be believed of petty thieves taking advantage of the crisis to hide their identities. An unmasked police official wouldn't comment.

The epidemic has disrupted not just the tourism and entertainment industry but lives at every level here.

Investment bankers, avoiding air travel, are missing international business meetings, a yoga shop has closed until further notice, a headhunting executive's clients won't make hiring decisions, and doctors are seeing fewer patients - that's right, fewer patients, because people with problems besides SARS are afraid of waiting rooms.

"They are so afraid that they stay at home," said L. Lee, an internist.

Naturally, some here view all this as overreaction.

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