CBC In Depth
Diary: A Canadian in Hong Kong
by Tavis du Preez | April 10, 2003

Avi Daniel was pushed and pulled into the world on the afternoon of April 1, oblivious to the many storms swirling about him in the world of his masked fellow creatures. While other parents lovingly cooed at their newborns with eyes peering from above the rims of various types of surgical and N95 masks, I was unwilling to present my new child with such a chilling face. Instead, I took the risk of removing my mask so that he could see the depth of welcome I wished to express through my smile.

Along with SARS, there is fear in the air here at Queen Mary Hospital, and throughout Hong Kong. Most bureaucracies are feeling great pressure to respond effectively to the SARS crisis, but it seems that they often just don't know what to do. The Queen Mary Hospital maternity ward often left its doors open for any to enter as they chose, only stepping up security on April 3 to allow visitation by fathers only. Accompanying this reasonable restriction was stiffer enforcement of visiting hours with fathers being required to leave earlier than previously. We all know the futility of closing the barn door after the escape, but what are administrators to do in the face of this terrible and sometimes lethal unknown?

In a similar fashion, we see footage on the news every evening of workers picking up garbage, washing, scrubbing and sterilizing infected areas such as Amoy Gardens. But as some residents have pointed out, what is the use of this energetic scrubbing when the virus is thought to exist outside of a living host for a maximum of only two to three hours? In a similar fashion, the paper surgical masks that so many of us are wearing were pronounced ineffective in a recent news special. Apparently the now-famous N95 mask and other even more expensive models provide the only real protection. But we go on wearing the masks we've got. Perhaps paper masks and cleaning frenzies, at the least, give us some sense of control when the unknowns of this situation continue to weigh so heavily upon the collective heart of "Asia's World City."

I personally find these unknowns to be exhausting as our situation seems neither to be improving nor to be exploding out of control. I have the sense of being slowly worn down and increasingly isolated. Like many others we don't go out much any more, finding only some small release from the confines of our small Hong Kong apartment by taking evening strolls on the seaside promenade. We try to go out at night when there are few people around, and even then we give any other fellow sojourners as wide a berth as possible. Social life is so important to most Hong Kong people who usually enjoy frequent dinners and dim sum gatherings with family, co-workers and friends. Now the restaurants are relatively empty, and many are being forced to shut down. The local service economy is reeling - in fact the entire Hong Kong economy is reeling as Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa recently admitted in a television broadcast, asserting this deepening economic crisis to be a "very serious matter."

While the financial implications of any particular situation seem to be heard most easily by Hong Kong persons, I worry deeply about social isolation and fear of strangers, fear even, of one's own family and friends. Many residents of Amoy Gardens have complained of discrimination before they were quarantined, and even now after having been isolated for 10 days and declared SARS free. Two days ago, I made a necessary trip on the MTR (subway) and found myself, against my better nature, discreetly moving away from another passenger who was unlucky enough to have coughed a few times. I noticed other heads turning toward the offending sound as the man relieved what was probably only a minor throat irritation. In these times of terrorism, war, and the "axis of evil," SARS appears to be another influence seducing us into suspicion of the "others" who surround us.

I think Avi Daniel didn't enter our lives on an April 1 fool's errand; rather, he has reminded me to show my human face to others and rebel against the tyranny of fear regardless of the danger that may be present in our midst.

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