[REPORTER’S DIARY]To stop SARS, stop spittingBEIJING ― China still has something to learn about SARS, the highly contagious disease that killed 916 worldwide. The potential for a new disaster remains should the deadly disease that killed more people in China than anywhere else return.
And foreigners will not escape the threat, and that includes the senior diplomats and other officials from the countries that took part in six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem last week. Add their assistants and the journalists tailing them.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency over the weekend reported the number of foreign visitors to Beijing dropped by more than 50 percent in the first half of the year as a result of the SARS epidemic. Half the 349 deaths reported in China occurred in the capital.
Meanwhile in China, spitting in public is common and that includes people who are there to attend to your personal needs. Perhaps an expression of hospitality, washrooms in upscale establishments frequented by foreigners, including the St. Regis Hotel where U.S. and Japanese delegations stayed during the week, are manned by staff in crisp white uniforms. They are there to turn on the faucets and then have two sheets of paper towel in hand for your use. But in the washroom, they can also be heard coughing up whatever is stuck deep in their throats and then spitting it out into the basket of waste paper towel.
At such moments, you think that you would rather be taking care of your own needs, like getting the paper towel yourself. Imagine the kindly butler wiping his face with the very hands that prepare the paper towel for you.
The ashtray by the hotel entrance, with its logo carefully drawn on a bed of fine white sand, is another showcase for the widespread behavior. It is none other than the hotel doormen who are spitting into the ashtrays.
Senior hotel officials share the habit. A manager of the Beijing International Hotel, another top-level hotel frequented by officials and journalists here, said there was “a very strict guideline” in force for the staff to ensure that guests are well received.
But that does not include the spitting. A South Korean diplomat here said locals and foreigners should have every reason to fear for their personal safety in case the SARS outbreak or a similar epidemic returns. Spitting, he said, is generally not as frowned upon as is forgetting to say, “Sir.”
Should SARS reappear, people might reconsider whether China’s leadership and meticulous effort to help resolve the nuclear crisis are worth the risk of holding future talks in a city where the people behave irresponsibly.
And that could mean more loss of revenue that the city enjoyed last week brought by more than 500 journalists covering the talks and an equal number of delegates and support staff.
by Kim Young-sae
The writer is on the staff of the JoongAng Daily.