CBC In Depth
INDEPTH: SARS
Diary: A Canadian in Hong Kong
by Tavis du Preez | March 31, 2003

Living on the less populated side of Hong Kong Island had given us a feeble hope that we might escape the effects of the mysterious disease that had shown up across Victoria Harbour in the Metropole Hotel in Kowloon, and further north, in the Prince of Wales Hospital in the New Territories. Two weeks ago at that time, on March 15th, when we toured the hospital where our baby will soon be born, a nurse answered my worried questions about SARS and their contingency plans, saying that she was not aware of the problem. Hong Kong has been slow to respond to this growing health emergency, with public officials initially blaming the WHO for unnecessarily raising concerns about the health issue in Hong Kong. Health officials are now admitting here that they responded too slowly to the crisis. But tuned in as I was to CBC's website, I was aware of the deaths and growing crisis in Toronto, and I was scared - scared for my partner's and my safety, but scared mostly for the safety for our soon to be born son, Avi.

And now I am not alone in my worries. With 470 cases and 12 deaths, Hong Kong persons are reportedly paying up to $7 CAN for surgical masks. Entrepreneurs are setting up shop to sell masks at bus stops, at stalls in the vegetable market, and even photo mats are selling the precious life protecting gear. It is not certain how effective the masks are - Health Dept. TV adverts are informing us that masks are not necessary unless one has had direct contact with an infected individual, but at least they give some sense of control in a scary situation that feels like it has mutated out of a bad horror movie. And wearing them seems to me to be a preferable option to smearing my nose with Tiger Balm or soaking my apartment with vinegar - cures advocated by some of the more traditional folk around here. During the initial outbreak in Guangzhou, vinegar was reported to be selling for $10.00 CAN/bottle - when one could get it.

The very busy shopping district of Causway Bay was very quiet on Saturday, the peak shopping day in Hong Kong. All schools are now closed by government order, and a usually buzzing city seems to have 'gone fishing.' While the disease initially spread among health care workers working in a number of hospitals, concerns are now growing rapidly due to its spread across the geographic territory of Hong Kong with cases even on Lamma Island, Lantau Island, on our home island, Ap Lei Chau. Metro workers, bank tellers, restaurant workers, and even a bus driver are among its recent victims, and most worrying has been its rapid spread through the residents of the Amoy Gardens Housing Estate, where 85 residents are now confirmed to be infected. This is raising fears anew that the virus may be airborne. As worrying as all of this is what I find even more concerning is that some people are still not taking the threat seriously. Today I saw many seniors gathered in the Aberdeen town square, the majority of whom were not wearing masks. And my partner received today received a phone call from a highly educated friend who teaches English in a Hong Kong college who had no idea that SARS was a threat to herself or her two small children. Another acquaintance of my partner who recently returned from a trip to Guangzhou reported seeing/hearing little or no mention of SARS in the local media and observed that only hospital workers were wearing masks. From my perspective, bureaucratic fear and public ignorance are as great a threat to my family's health as is the virus itself.

While Hong Kong University scientists just announced it would take five years before a vaccine will be available to protect against this virus, nine of the earliest afflicted patients were released amid fanfare from The Prince of Wales Hospital today. So young and healthy adults seem to hold a good chance for recovery should they be unlucky enough to block the wrong sneeze, but I'm still praying for babies.

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The SARS (Campbell) Commission

New England Journal of Medicine

Canadian Medical Association

Ontario Ministry of Health Update on SARS

Vancouver SARS page

Hong Kong SARS page

WHO: SARS Outbreak News

World Health Organization travel advisory

Health Canada SARS site

Toronto Public Health's SARS site

Health Canada travel advisory

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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