A Thought about SARS


It is not a common occurrence to have a four-letter word dominate the headlines of the mass media. This word is “SARS”, an abbreviation for severe acute respiratory syndrome, also called atypical pneumonia. For over a month now, Beijing has been battling it out on the frontline with this formidable enemy, and with each passing moment Beijing is edging closer to victory. One indication demonstrating the scale of the battle in Beijing are statistics released on May 29th measuring the number of those who have fallen victim to the disease; 2,517 infected persons and 176 deaths in Beijing alone, representing 47.3% and 53.8% of the national total respectively. It also seems that the economic impact is not negligible. Those industries that have been especially hit hard are the service industries, namely tourism, food, entertainment and transportation. When the number of infections peaked, during the May holidays, usually a week in duration, Beijing experienced catastrophic losses to the tourist industry, unseen since the Tienanmen Square incident of 1989; the number of tourists had fallen by 96% compared to the same period the previous year, and tourist revenues suffered a 99% loss. One can feel nothing but pity knowing that the lights in the lobby of 5-star hotels are switched off and no staff are working at the front desk. China’s notable economists are saying that it is necessary to make a downward adjustment to the growth rate of the GDP in Beijing by 0.5 points and 1.5% to the GDP growth rate of the country as a whole (the GDP growth rate for China in 2002 was 8%).

Even everyday life has been seriously inconvenienced. Everywhere one goes, one’s body temperature is taken and if it exceeds 37.5 degrees centigrade, then not only will one be refused entry into restaurants, but also one’s own apartment block. It is really quite frightening to think that one cannot under any circumstances catch a cold. The fact that an onset of fever could mean SARS makes one tremble with fear and one must decide whether to take the plunge and go to a designated hospital. This is followed by a lengthy wait of 30 minutes in an isolated room for the sentence to be passed, after medical personnel clad in what look like space suits take blood pressure, urinalysis, X ray and blood tests. A Japanese person who could no longer hide the onset of a fever mustered up the courage to go to hospital. This person said that in preparation for the likelihood of a positive diagnosis of SARS and quarantine, he took personal belongings, officinal drugs, a cellular phone and the battery charger (sole lifeline to the outside world), and for some reason a bag packed full with novels to the hospital. Upon being exposed to the somewhat unusual environment in the hospital, he said that his blood pressure escalated to 180 beats per minute. It is no laughing matter. This person, fortunately, was diagnosed with the common cold, but there is no doubt that such an experience left a lasting memory comparable to going to hell and back. He said what troubled him most was not the infection itself, but rather how it would affect the outside world he had interacted with. In other words the thought that friends, family, workplace, anywhere he had been, the hotel where he had been staying, the restaurants all would have to be quarantined or closed was unbearable. In addition, bearing in mind that until time not one Japanese person had been infected with SARS, the very fact that he could be the first case would surely cause a sensation.

The Beijing city authorities declared on May 23rd that SARS had been essentially brought under control, however many say that this is a premature announcement. In April, the mayor of Beijing and the Health Minister, who both had continually understated the number of infections, were made responsible for the large outbreak of SARS and consequently were dismissed. However, according to recent announcements, the ruling circles in China have instructed that: “Beijing is an international city and this must therefore be taken into consideration when dealing with SARS.” Yet this has been taken to mean: “if we can help it, let’s avoid the release of information.” This instruction was vague. One is inclined to believe that even with the current low number of infections, recent statistics do not reflect the actual figures. At this stage, there is a tendency in China to leave room for excuses and make decisions upon examination of the results. The drama surrounding the dismissal of officials typifies what one should expect when conducting business with China.

It appears to us that the worst of the battle is now over, however there is still the sound of gunfire. China South Airlines has promised to present a lifetime’s worth of free plane tickets to the first person to discover a vaccine for SARS. Guangzhou Station has imposed a threefold temperature check system: at the ticket gate, and before and after boarding the train. In addition, 60% of the masks produced by one manufacturer are entirely defective and which have, for aesthetic quality, florescent bleaching banned by the government. This is no laughing matter. Some are concerned that SARS could reemerge in November. If this is the case, and at that time people are reassured by the prior experience with SARS during the spring, I would like to suggest that they exercise some sense of caution in putting their faith in lessons learnt from the past.

[Translated by ERINA]