Remembering SARS


Bronze Head of Dr Tse Yuen-man, Sars Memorial, Hong Kong. Photograph by 文子言木 via Wikimedia Commons (cc)

From The Atlantic:

The experience of SARS traumatized Hong Kong, and the memories have endured in the territory’s collective consciousness. The doctors who helped combat the virus are widely known, tales of sacrifice by medical workers are often repeated, and the city’s ability to rebound once the virus subsided is frequently invoked by leaders to show its resilience and spirit. The experience also brought about a rise in public-health awareness and a sense of civic responsibility toward preventing illness, as well as an increased investment in health care and research, factors that seem to have helped effectively contain the outbreak of the novel coronavirus here. When news emerged of a mystery outbreak in mainland China, Hong Kong residents, almost out of instinct, began taking measures that health experts credit with helping stave off the explosion of infections seen elsewhere. The government, after initial stumbles, enacted a series of regulations to slow the spread and leaned on experts, many of whom came to prominence in 2003, to assist with the new crisis.

The SARS outbreak is “remembered vividly” by people who lived through it and “in no place is this more true than in Hong Kong,” says Keiji Fukuda, the director of the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, who previously held top positions at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “While in many places, the general public tends to regard outbreaks, more or less, like a television fantasy or brief news item,” he told me, “in Hong Kong, the public take outbreaks, and recommendations about what to do, seriously.”

Well before the emergence of the coronavirus, surgical masks have been a common sight on the city’s subways and buses, as people suffering from even a mild cough or sniffles wore them as a precaution against infecting others. Small signs on elevator panels and doors indicate how often they are disinfected. Hospitals maintain separate waiting areas for those experiencing flu-like symptoms. Using a tissue or pen to press an elevator button would hardly garner a quizzical look. News of disease outbreaks in China, and Asia more broadly, receive considerable news coverage. These measures that permeate everyday life are largely linked to the lasting memory of SARS. The outbreak “facilitated the development of public health at the institutional level, but it has also enabled the Hong Kong population to become aware of the importance of personal hygiene and infection prevention at the community level,” Judy Yuen-man Siu, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Department of Applied Social Science, observed in a 2016 paper examining the widespread adoption of face masks during the crisis.

“A Glimpse of the Coronavirus’s Possible Legacy”, Timothy McLaughlin, The Atlantic