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|| News Item: Posted 2003-04-29

SARS …What if I have it too?
By David G. McIntyre

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Beijing, China (April 21,2003) People wear a protective mask while passing in front of the late-Chairman Mao's portrait in Tianamen Square in order to avoid the SARS virus in Beijing, China.
"As the red-bereted security guard pokes a thermometer into my ear, it occurs to me that I've never had to clear a pre-interview hurdle remotely like this one. I'm in the lobby of one of the world's largest factories, Flextronics International Ltd.'s flagship southern China facility, a place that has emerged as yet another front in the war against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). If I'm running a fever, I'm going to be sent to the factory clinic -- or sent packing.

I pass the temperature check and head inside." - Mark Clifford, Businessweek magazine, May 8, 2003

I too was there for Businessweek with the above mentioned reporter in Zhuhai, China (a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong) and also passed the same test to see if I was infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), or if I could go ahead and photograph inside this factory. My photos were not as much a concern (even though they are the manufacturing home of many state of the art electronic items, including Microsoft's X-box), as my health was and how I could bring a halt to their whole manufacturing process and shut their factory. My temperature was normal and I headed inside.

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

(April 13,2003) A resident of Hong Kong wears an altered surgical mask to protect from the deadly SARS virus that has hit Hong Kong and spread throughout the world.
It has been a strange several weeks in Asia, and around the world trying to figure out what the latest news and findings are about SARS. Trying to cover this invisible virus has also proven very difficult, as we can't be sure where it is lurking and that we might have come in contact with and caught it.

The SARS virus, though less infectious than influenza, is more than twice as deadly as influenza in a pandemic. Its mortality rate, at around 5 percent (and now possibly as high as 10 percent), is close to that of bacterial meningitis; and, like meningitis, it gains in horror by killing the young and vigorous as well as the old and frail.

After living in Hong Kong the previous eight years, before moving to Beijing this past February, I have become quite used to hearing about different strains of viruses and illnesses that might be lurking around.

Feeling like we might be in the middle of an "Outbreak," like the movie of the same name didn't seem to be something to worry about. Hong Kong experienced the bird-flu virus in 1997 that led to the killing of all live chickens in the territory to prevent its spread.

Even with friends and family sending e-mails of concern about the latest virus didn't seem to bring much worry either. We never had much worry about a before, but do we now?

Figures about it, such as this weekend (April 27-28, 2003) 161 new cases of infection of SARS were reported, 126 in Beijing. The total number of cases in Mainland China is now just under 3,000. Nine new deaths were reported, bringing the China total (excluding Hong Kong) to 131. Worldwide, almost 300 people have died from SARS.

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Beijing, China (April 21,2003) Bus company employees wear protective masks on a public bus in order to avoid the SARS virus in Beijing, China.
The Beijing government ordered schools in the capital to close for two weeks; but also public gathering places, including theaters, Internet cafes and discos in further attempts to restrict the disease's spread. Also they have cancelled the weeklong May Day holiday a time when millions travel in crowded trains and buses-was promptly cancelled. Transport operators were ordered to screen out passengers showing possible signs of SARS, such as fever and persistent coughing. Citizens were advised to avoid crowded areas and warned they would be quarantined if they had contact with a SARS patient.

After weeks in denial, Beijing was suddenly confronting the problem of SARS.

Why the change of tack? Not out of concern for public health, to be sure (according to the Economist magazine); the central government is still lethargic in the face of the far bigger problem of HIV/AIDS, which, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, may result in between 10m and 20m Chinese being HIV-positive within seven years.

More important to the leaders was the damage being done to China's image abroad, and the realization that the economic consequences of being honest may, in the long run, be less severe than those of obfuscation.

Even before the higher figures began to leak out, international events in Beijing were being cancelled because foreigners were refusing to attend and foreign tour-groups were staying away.

The Olympics are coming here in 2008, and this could be a big blow to that too. Dependants of foreigners living in Beijing were beginning to leave the country. China's cover-up of the spread of SARS was causing the country's biggest credibility crisis abroad since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Compounding the regime's fears, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised travelers not to go to Beijing-advice not heard since those violent days.

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

(April 23,2003) Workers at the Flextronics Technology factory in Zhuhai, Chinawash their hands and have little fear of catching the SARS virus, do to the measures the company has taken to ensure the safety of everyone at the factory.
I have been covering this outbreak, along with many colleagues in the journalism field. But being journalists has not made us immune from the virus, or our friends and family. One newspaper writer I know based out of Beijing, was told by his wife, that he would not be allowed to come home for 10-days if he went to Hong Kong to cover the story in fear that hear could become a spreader and bring it home.

People are being told by their friends that they would prefer see them in 2-14 days if they have been to an infected area, or flown on an aircraft recently (many cases have been reported due to infected passengers on airlines).

Some even say they are not venturing out at all in fear of becoming infected. Even a holiday to Bhutan was postponed for my wife and I when the government there was quarantining those who were coming from SARS infected countries, as even their Trade Minister caught the virus during a recent trip.

I have gone around from one labeled 'Hot Zone' to another (Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen) to take photos; can I become possibly a super-spreader? I am now wearing a mask when around large groups or on airplanes or public transport, and using sterilizing gel whenever I might come in close contact with a possible source of SARS.

I have become at times just as paranoid as others if I have a small headache or cough, wondering if I might have become infected. I check for any symptoms that mean my next stop is a hospital. Well, so far all is okay.

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Photo by David G. McIntyre/ Black Star

Beijing, China (April 21,2003) People wear a protective mask while passing in front of the late-Chairman Mao's portrait in Tianamen Square in order to avoid the SARS virus in Beijing, China.
Many signs of the public protecting themselves are visible, thus making photos numerous to get. The public, business and restaurant employees are wearing masks, popular tourist/sightseeing spots are easy to maneuver with no one venturing to see them, and at the grocery stores many people are stocking up on supplies so that they can stay home and out of the public.

Also many office and residential buildings are sanitizing almost all surfaces such as elevator buttons, floors and telephone receivers on a regular schedule. Even taxis and the railway stations have been disinfected. The Beijing city officials even raised the maximum fine for spitting in public - thought to be a means of SARS transmission - by 1,000 percent to $6, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.

Our conversations range from what is going on with the virus and where it might be, to what masks are the best models to wear and what we are doing to protect ourselves. But also we talk about the slowness of businesses, and tourism as many places are closed or on a reduced operating schedule.

Being in Tiananmen Square with a friend visiting from Hong Kong, we encountered very few people. But just as few people are out shopping in the shops and bargain areas, we talk about how cheaply merchants are willing to sell their wares for. And through all these things, we try to keep a sense of humor as to not get too worked up.

Hopefully an anti-virus is found soon, and we can all get back to a normal life-style.

(David G. McIntyre is a photographer for Black Star photo agency of New York, who has been based in Asia since 1995. After eight years in Hong Kong, he now lives in Beijing, China. He can be reached at:

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