When we had sars in our eyes
By Nury Vittachi
ONE OF THE NASTIEST flu bugs for years is now doing the rounds of Asia, exactly five years after the region was hit by SARS. In fact, it was five years ago today that a friend of mine bustled her kids to the airport. “Adios,” she said. “I’m taking the kids home where it’s safer.”
Now that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Except for one thing.
Her home was Brazil.
She left Asia because SARS was suspected of having killed one person in her hometown. She moved to Brazil where 55,000 people are murdered every year. (And that’s just in the kindergartens.)
This week is the fifth anniversary of SARS. In Singapore and Malaysia, people ate chilli to immunize themselves. In Indonesia, lizards were the remedy of choice. In South Asia, magic potions were prescribed.
I still have my reporter’s notebook for 2003, so let me take you back to how it all started.
February 11: “Six dead of mystery virus in Guangdong” a newspaper reported.
February 12: The new killer virus was deadly but “not as serious as rumoured”, a Guangdong health official said. Only in China can virus be fatal but not serious.
February 13: I visit my local supermarket and see people fighting to buy white vinegar, which is rumoured to cure the mystery virus.
February 14: The Chinese press reveals there have been no deaths from the virus but several people have died trying to inhale white vinegar.
March 10: At home, this reporter’s infant prodigy asks why a resident of our apartment block is now wearing a mask. “Don’t worry, it’s just our neighbourhood bank robber,” I quip.
March 11: Widespread hysteria breaks out. Infant prodigy informs me that her school has been taken over entirely by bank robbers.
March 20: The Hong Kong government orders all buses to jam windows open to improve ventilation and let germs out.
March 22: Passengers suffer carbon monoxide poisoning as they sit in ultra-polluted traffic jams in buses bearing signs saying: “Windows open for health reasons.”
April 1: Police arrest teenage prankster who puts out fake news alert saying “Hong Kong to be isolated from world”.
April 2: World Health Organization orders that Hong Kong be isolated from the world.
June 2: SARS disappears from Asia, having caused fewer deaths than normal flu viruses.
Yes, it was a time of craziness. But looking back on it, there were things to smile about. Here are the Five Best Things About The Two Months When SARS Ruled Asia.
1. Most Asian government officials looked better with masks on.
2. For a while, people with bad breath only tainted themselves.
3. Elevator-users in Asia stopped jabbing the “door close” button because they didn’t want to touch anything.
4. Mothers-in-law all over the world cancelled plans to visit their offspring in Asia.
5. If you wanted more personal space, all you had to do was cough.
I felt like a movie star whenever I travelled by air. People in first class got seats 24 inches wide. Business class passengers got seats 19 inches wide. In economy, I had the whole cabin and all the stewardesses to myself.
And I wasn’t drinking white vinegar.
Tomorrow: How Asians secretly “fix” Hollywood movies