CBC In Depth
Notebook: Searching for a safe haven from SARS
By Michael Kearns, Beijing Producer, CBC TV News | April 25, 2003

I'm not kidding one bit when I say this: Toronto is my SARS-safe haven. Let me explain. I am the producer in the CBC's Beijing bureau. I took up the post in January, moving there with my wife, Deanna, and our two-and-a-half year old son, Benjamin. I should add a not-so-insignificant detail – my wife and I are expecting our second child.

We had been in Beijing for several weeks when I was dispatched to the Persian Gulf to cover the war in Iraq. When I left, I was aware of this mystery illness, which didn't have a name at that point but had killed a number of people in southern China. There wasn't much more to it at that moment, and my head was deep in another story.

When the bombs started falling on Baghdad, my wife was calling me asking me what I knew about this thing called SARS. She said every time it was being reported on CNN and the BBC, the channels went to black, likely knocked out by the Chinese government. I started to read the wires beyond the Iraq coverage with greater interest.

I arrived back in Beijing in early April. Some people, mostly foreigners, were wearing masks at the airport. There were not too many other signs, though, that something deadly serious was happening there. That changed when, straight from the airport, I met my wife at the hospital for our next ultrasound to check on the baby's development. We saw each other for the first time in weeks, both of us wearing surgical masks that the Western-run, private hospital was distributing at the door.

Our Chinese midwife said they weren't recommending that people leave, but she admitted many expatriates in our situation had fled Beijing. We knew that. Neighbours from the U.S. embassy had been told to return home. It was the same thing for other journalists, diplomats and corporate employees. We also knew, just by looking at the numbers, that the odds of us catching this disease and dying of it were rather slim. But how much of a risk would we be willing to take? What were the chances the Chinese government would get it under control?

I went to a completely predictable news conference held by Chinese government officials the next day. We have it contained, they said. Pay no mind to the reports of military hospitals bursting with SARS cases, or the hospitals that had been forced to close because they were overwhelmed. Untrue rumours. I and my fellow journalists left, half laughing, half shaking our heads incredulously. Some of them had seen these hospitals with their own eyes. By trying to save its image, the Chinese government was actually inflicting more damage on itself.

I got back to the diplomatic residence compound where we live to find out that the government had decided to spray our buildings with some unspecified chemical. When I inquired, I was told it was nothing stronger than household disinfectant. Later, I learned it was likely a germicide not meant to be used so closely to people. Our Chinese bureau staff members were being ordered to take some awful-tasting concoction they were told would protect them from SARS. Then the theory surfaced about how a faulty sewage system and cockroaches may have contributed to the spread of SARS in a Hong Kong apartment complex. We have both of those in our apartment building.

I didn't sleep that night, or the next few nights. The two most dangerous places to be for SARS were hospitals and airplanes. We had to be in hospitals because of the pregnancy. The World Health Organization said Beijing hospitals weren't even logging SARS cases properly or tracing contacts of SARS patients. How could we trust them to deliver our baby if, for some reason, our own hospital was forced to shut down? The alternative was to get on a plane and return to our previous home, Toronto, the only other place in the world outside China where people had died from the virus. At least they were admitting SARS was a problem in Toronto. But were we putting ourselves at greater risk by getting on a plane? We felt trapped.

We woke up most days believing we could tough it out and be vigilant. We really like Beijing and did not want to leave. We tried to do the things we were told to do: buy hand sanitizers, carry our masks with us, and avoid big crowds and people who travel often. Sure. Try avoiding big crowds in China. Try keeping a toddler's hands clean or getting him to wear a mask (even with a leopard face drawn on it). Try to avoid people who travel often when you live in close quarters with diplomats and journalists. We never really felt safe. And by nighttime, we went to bed thinking we had to get out of Beijing. In the end, the nights won.

After a long and nervous flight, we arrived in Toronto. For 10 days, we took our temperatures and watched for other symptoms, and now we feel safe here. Imagine that.



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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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