Remembering SARS

As the invasion of Covid-19 escalates, I try to recall how it was in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic of 2002-3.  It seemed to have caused far less social disturbance.

Of course the scale was smaller. There were only 8,098 cases and 774 death in 17 countries (fatality rate: 9.6%) but Hong Kong, where I was living, was one of the centres. Eventually 299 people died there.

The virus has come from the nearby mainland on 21 February 2003 when a when a ’super-spreader,’ Dr Liu checked in to the Metropole Hotel, five doors from our apartment. He stayed on the 9th floor and infected 23 people.

It took us some time to realise what was happening. The first mention in my records was on 24th March when I noted an increase of people wearing masks. On the 26th I made a planned visit to teachers in Chongqing, on the mainland, thinking nothing of it.  When I returned on the 29th, half of the people I met were wearing masks. However, no one seemed especially alarmed. 

Early in April anxiety begin to spread but life in Hong Kong went on much as usual. I started sending regular up-dates on the situation to our teachers in mainland universities. By the 8th the American Peace Corps has pulled out all its teacher from China, using helicopters in some areas.  I told our teachers to decide for themselves whether they would stay or leave. All opted to stay even though the universities were in lock-down.

On 25th April Beijing was shut down but nothing as dramatic was happening in Hong Kong. People hoped the epidemic had reached its peak. However it was not till 23rd May that the WHO declared the emergency over. 

On 1 July I felt it was OK to depart for home on a scheduled vacation. I wore a mask till I got through immigration in Hong Kong Airport but after that there were no masks and no mention of SARS, quarantines or checks.  It had taken three months for the ‘all clear’ to be raised.

Since 2004 there have been no more SARS cases recorded. I hope it will be the same this time.

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