Skeptical and scared in the eye of an epidemic

April 28, 2003|By John O'Mara

BEIJING - The mood in Beijing has shifted from benign resignation before the SARS epidemic to something bordering on panic in a remarkably short time. The revelation of what everyone knew anyway - that the government has been covering up the true extent of the problem - is probably what set things off.

All of the schools around the city have closed, and some companies are offering employees the option of working from home or altering their schedules to avoid the rush-hour jam, or are closing.

The aroma of incense and boiling herbal remedies pervades offices and stores and wafts from the narrow alleyways of the city's crowded hutongs, a honeycomb-like collection of small apartments that share a common courtyard and are connected by pedestrian walkways.

They once were far more common in this city of nearly 15 million, but the ones that remain must be especially troubling to health care professionals because of their shared toilet facilities and high population densities.

An epidemic is an insidious thing that incites rumor and speculation that feeds into the fear machine and produces more rumor and speculation. It is said that a single cab driver infected 70 of his clients.

My colleague, Wang Dong, who works with me in the marketing department of a Chinese information technology firm, is afraid because someone told him that a couple of employees at a bank he frequents were diagnosed with SARS.

I heard that you can catch SARS from animals.

Turnips are supposed to be good for the lungs, and the price has increased 14 times over the past few weeks.

But what has people really on edge, aside from the self-imposed quarantine with school-aged children, are the more draconian quarantines supposedly under consideration by the government. The rumor is that the city may be sealed off, that people will not be permitted to enter or leave Beijing unless they have approval.

There is an oddly claustrophobic and gossipy feel to life these days as we mumble through our surgical masks the latest news overheard somewhere or other and wonder aloud what it might mean for us.

I remember a book I read many years ago, Albert Camus' The Plague. A city is quarantined against the spread of the plague and the novel follows a small group of people as they cope with the death and invisible threat. The sense I took from that book was of walls closing in, of limitations being set and how people rise or fall to the occasion. The situation in Beijing is far less grave, but the similarities in atmosphere are striking.

My wife, Lusha, and I took a bike ride recently, and it was apparent that many of the restaurants are empty and people are staying off the streets. I have decided to work from home for at least the next week or so. And when I do go back, if I do go back, I will travel all the way by bicycle. The buses and subways will be off limits for the foreseeable future.

Many people keep their faces covered while outdoors and try to avoid contact with anybody or anything that might be "dirty." Lusha wears two layers of cotton padding over her mouth. She told me that health care workers are wearing four layers. Cold symptoms are alarming to everybody. Family members chastise one another because if one gets it, they likely will all get it.

Lusha and I had dinner with a doctor from Peking University Hospital a couple of weeks ago. He said the SARS numbers in Beijing were higher than had been reported by the Health Ministry, probably a few dozen or so cases and a half-dozen deaths vs. the official numbers of 12 cases and three deaths.

Also, I saw a report from a doctor at People's Liberation Army General Hospital No. 301 that there were 60 cases and seven deaths there. There are many conflicting reports from dubious sources about the extent of the epidemic. When the government withholds information, as it had been doing, rumors rush to fill the void, and that creates a tension that is probably much worse than would have been the case under full disclosure.

China is a factory to the world, but the world just isn't visiting the factory. An American businessman was supposed to visit my company's offices a few weeks ago but canceled because of the SARS scare. Much of the work that is done here relies on input from overseas managers, and that input has not been forthcoming. Not only has SARS been bad for people, it's been bad for business as well.

My feeling is that the chances of contracting SARS in Beijing are exceedingly small. But that doesn't stop me or anyone else from looking cross-eyed at anyone who sneezes or coughs. You never know if it's just a symptom of a common cold or something that can kill you.

John O'Mara lives and works in Beijing as a marketing director for a Chinese information technology firm.

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