[A LETTER FROM BEIJING]Worse than SARS is fear virusWell, you know the story. Schools have been sealed off. Hospitals and residential areas are quarantined. At the city’s railway stations and airport, rafts of people are lined up to escape the deadly virus. Most of my expat friends have fled the city. Some of my Chinese friends have stopped going to work because their companies encourage them to work at home. You know this city. It is Beijing. And that’s where I live now.
Worse, I live at the epicenter of the plague ― the Haidian school district which has been bombarded with media coverage lately because it has reported more cases of SARS than any other area in the capital. Even my Chinese friends living in other parts of the city decline to come to my place. One left a short message on my cell phone, “C U after SARS!” Momentarily, I confused it with the title of a new Star Wars sequel. But my experience with SARS ― fear in the face of the invisible virus ― has been far more surreal.
In the Biblical curse against the Egyptian pharaoh, an invisible deadly epidemic killed every first-born son. That doomed night, all Egyptians must have gone hysterical ― more from fear of the uncertainty than from the deadly messenger itself. What is invisible can be more dangerous than what is visible. Panic creeps in relentlessly. It is quite evident in this city.
After 6 p.m., most streets are deserted. When I handed over money in a supermarket, a cashier in a surgical mask and rubber gloves returned my change. Normally chatty Beijing taxi drivers save words these days, perhaps trying to keep the air fresh inside the cab. People treat each other as possible transmitters of the lethal germ. Clearly, another deadly virus is circulating ― fear.
This evening, I found something interesting. Jogging near my apartment complex, I encountered several local people at the street corner intensely watching something. I stopped to see what was going on. They were ordinary Beijingers walking their dogs in the evening breeze. I blushed a little, though, to see what they were doing. They were letting their dogs copulate on the street corner. They seemed quite entertained. A man in his 50s turned and spotted me. I bashfully smiled. He smiled back, nodding.
I sighed with relief. It was good to know that in this difficult time people were still putting themselves through their normal routines (such as they were). A former psychology major, I cannot help but psychologize things. I see it as a healthy sign, projecting a kind of optimism. It is paramountly important to equip people with mental coping skills in the face of the disease epidemic; they are as necessary in a terror-stricken city as medical supplies. The World Health Organization describes health as having three realms: physical, mental and social. Apparently, we are overlooking the latter two in our dealings with SARS. Maintaining healthy optimism and social support is more critical than ever. I will keep my fingers crossed until I see my Chinese friend’s message materialized: “C U after SARS!”
by Sunny Lee
The writer lives in Beijing.