Select Page

Strangely, no one in California that I’ve talked to this week really seems to care about SARS. No surprise, since there have been few cases and even fewer deaths, and since travel in the US is so widespread there are few clusters of cases, thus no real outbreak (YET!) as there is in Canada and Asia.

SARS is scaring Canadians the way Terrorism scares Americans, though… when I recently coughed at Vancouver Airport, people looked at me in horror and another physically moved away from my immediate proximity. A few people on my YVR-SFO flight were even wearing surgical masks.

Hong Kong likes to put a brave face on things; and the widespread use of surgical masks has led to an outbreak of fashion trends. How very postmodern.



Fashion fad masks panic

Behind the surgical masks bearing Burberry and Louis Vuitton logos, people in Hong Kong are growing increasingly worried about the spread of the Sars virus, writes Arun Sudhaman

Friday April 4, 2003

On the streets of Hong Kong, a mask is fast becoming de rigeur. Always susceptible to fads, the city’s seven million-strong population has embraced the latest one with a fervour that reflects the fear which has gripped it.

The Sars virus has struck at the heart of Hong Kong’s increasingly fragile self-confidence, and as the number of infected cases continues to mount, the realisation is dawning among residents that the deadly disease is unlikely to recede any time soon.

One of the most densely populated regions on earth, Hong Kong has resembled nothing more than a ghost town over the past week. Residents stay at home under a self-imposed quarantine, and the normally hectic streets are eerily empty after office hours. Those who do venture out are invariably masked, and the city has begun to increasingly look like a giant outdoor hospital ward.

The situation has begun to take on a life of its own. A new language has sprung up to cover the events that now make up an average day. People question each other over the availability of the N95, a particularly popular industrial-strength mask.

Most make do with cheap surgical masks, known as “3-ply”, while others use a variety of items, among them handkerchiefs, napkins and even plastic files, to cover the mouth and nose. Still more, in a particularly poignant show of desperation, hold their hands over their faces, attempting to physically fight off the virus that has so far claimed 17 lives in Hong Kong.

The city’s legendary entrepreneurial spirit is however still intact. Barely a day of the health crisis had passed before masks bearing Burberry and Louis Vuitton logos were spotted in Central, the territory’s financial centre.

For the less highbrow, street vendors sell a range of masks adorned with popular cartoon characters. Pharmacies sell masks for up to five times their usual price and are doing a similarly brisk trade in disinfectants.

At office blocks, the usual cheerful disregard for cleanliness has been replaced by the obsessive quest for a sterile environment. At one property management company, staff sit masked and wearing latex gloves, while cleaners bleach all the available surfaces. Disinfectant wipes are distributed and workers are asked to wear a jacket whilst outside in the oppressive humidity, to be hung outside when entering the office.

Earlier this week, a 14-year-old succeeded in perpetrating a vicious hoax – that Hong Kong had been declared an infected port.

The city’s stock exchange immediately nosedived and people flooded grocery stores in a panic-buying frenzy. As blows were exchanged in supermarket aisles, the government was forced to send over six million text messages out to quell the rumour. But the sense of panic remains, and anyone exhibiting even the mildest symptoms of a cold is given a very wide berth.

Among the city’s more wealthy expatriate population, the fear is blended with a curious display of bravado. Many go mask-less, determined not to be swayed by tabloid hysteria.

The annual rugby sevens, a traditionally expatriate display of drinking hedonism, drew significant numbers of fans, despite questions from local doctors about the wisdom of staging such an event. As a spokesman for the event noted: “It’s more public opinion than reality.”

At a clinic in an upmarket residential neigbourhood, however, American parents demand tests for their children, before sending them back to the US, where Sars has less of a hold. Expatriate families are deserting the city in droves, leaving only the breadwinner behind.

But the majority of the population is not this lucky. More than 200 people have already been placed under strict quarantine in holiday camps, through the government’s invocation of little-used colonial powers. Many of them staged a sit-in when it became clear that they would have to share toilets between households at the quarantine camps, and successfully forced the government to open two more camps.

And despite the Hong Kong populace’s reputation for being apolitical, the government’s role in the crisis has come in for harsh criticism. At the daily press briefing, residents gather around television sets, voicing their opinions on the government’s handling of the crisis in no uncertain terms.

Initial attempts to downplay the crisis, with one senior official remarking that “there is no indication of any unusual pneumonia in Hong Kong”, have yet to be forgotten by the public. China, too, features heavily in daily conversation, with many at a loss to explain the mainland’s seeming refusal to acknowledge the scope of the problem.

The irony of the situation has also not escaped some of the city’s residents. Since its heady days as a financial powerhouse, the Hong Kong special administrative region has had to bear the brunt of a hellish economic downturn.

In addition the “bird flu”, an avian virus believed to have originated in Guangdong province, has killed seven to date.

With Hong Kong trying hard to recapture some of its former glory by recasting itself as the gateway to a booming China, the city’s proximity to the mainland has left it facing a health crisis of alarming proportions.

As one Hong Kong lawyer comments: “It’s just one bad thing after another. I know Hong Kong is supposed to be positioning itself as the entrance to China, but this is working the other way around.”