Originally published October 5, 2020
It is 2003 all over again . . .
It was March 7th in New York City; my phone started buzzing on the kitchen table. I read the notification on my phone, which heightened a tense uneasiness: “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo officially declared a state of emergency as the coronavirus outbreak continues.” (March 7, NBC news) And there it was . . . an unstoppable and mysterious novel virus had officially taken over the world. It was already terrifying to see how COVID-19 started affecting mass populations. As various nations were simultaneously dealing with the first wave of infections, an all too familiar angst had returned within me. Would this pandemic be a repeat of the devastating 2003 SARS outbreak in Southeast Asia?
Not a soul in sight, NYC - Photo Courtesy of Aanchal Bhattacharya
Prior to the declaration of New York state’s emergency, I had already begun following the trail of COVID-19 across the world. With all the information I was gathering from various international news outlets, I was trying to fathom the severity. Now that it was official that the world was facing a global pandemic status, I knew that the next couple of weeks were going to require myself furiously researching this virus’s symptoms, listening to what global health experts had to say, and trying to survive in one of the largest, most densely populated cities in the world. After reading more about what safety precautions were being implemented in different countries, it was evident that 2020 had just thrown us the greatest curveball ever; the world was now going to face one of its toughest international challenges, alongside climate change. That afternoon, as I watched Cuomo’s briefing on my laptop, it reminded me of a similar briefing my family and I had watched when I was nine years old. I felt I was back in my home in Hong Kong, sitting next to my parents, as we listened intently to the newscaster talk about the deadly SARS outbreak that had taken over the city. Thanks to COVID-19, I felt I had travelled back in time to 2003 all over again.
Preparations for a Pandemic — Hong Kong’s Lessons from SARS 2003
The SARS outbreak had not only decimated Hong Kong in 2003 but also left a deep and traumatic memory in recent history. The outbreak had a staggering death toll for the tiny city’s population, causing a monumental dent of infecting around 1,700 people and leaving 299 dead. At the time, the virus was so contagious that it had spread to other parts of Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region including Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Keiji Fukuda, “a U.S. expert on infectious diseases and former assistant director-general for health security at the World Health Organization (WHO), told Today’s WorldView that SARS and other outbreaks provided lessons for Hong Kong.” (Taylor, 1) Dealing with SARS had enabled people living in the region to be prepared for the novel COVID-19. Fukuda further mentioned that, “In Hong Kong, it is pretty common, even without an outbreak, to see people going around in masks because they may be sick and they don’t want to infect other people.” (Ibid) The SARS outbreak created a space for the normalization of mask-wearing, including other sanitization habits. Surviving SARS was etched onto the collective consciousness of people living in the Asia-Pacific region. Its devastation instilled a long-term sense of civic responsibility and duty amongst citizens and residents, to not just protect oneself but others in order to prevent catastrophic illnesses. The lessons from the outbreak also initiated major investments in health care and research, which therefore effectively assisted in containing the outbreak in Southeast Asia, especially in Hong Kong. (McLaughlin, 3)
Fast forward to March 2020. Nisha Gopalan reports in Bloomberg that the cases in Hong Kong are far less than the infection rate in the U.S. or Italy. She further mentions, “That might seem surprising for a city that sits on the doorstep of mainland China and has intertwining business, tourism and personal connections with the source of the epidemic. The reason can be summed up in one word: SARS.” (Gopalan, 3) It is unsurprising to see that the wariness from dealing with SARS has greatly impacted Hong Kongers both emotionally and mentally. The harrowing experience has prepared anyone from this region to be equipped for another outbreak, including immediately recognizing the safety measures that must be implemented even before the government’s guidelines.
Glow over Hong Kong - Photo Courtesy of Aanchal Bhattacharya
I still remember some of the key measures that were taken at the time. These safety measures were quite similar to what is currently employed in majorly infected regions of the world in order to combat COVID-19. Schools and offices were closed for a couple of months. Recreational activities were suspended. Public gatherings were cautioned as “dangerous” and restaurants were temporarily closed. The once bustling streets of Hong Kong instantly felt like an eerie ghost town. Hong Kongers were terrified of venturing out onto the streets in fear of contracting SARS. Even though remote learning and working was not as “advanced” as what it has morphed into in 2020, the SARS outbreak had instantly transformed the lifestyles of everyone in the city. However, despite the virus’s ruthlessness, how did Hong Kong and other parts of the Asian Pacific region bounce back so quickly? In terms of statistics, SARS had killed about “one in ten infected people” (Roossinck, 1) As the world currently grapples with self-isolation, quarantines, and surge in cases, in 2003, Hong Kongers were back to their daily lives within mere months. Even without a vaccine, it seemed the virus had disappeared. In terms of SARS’ nature, Marilyn J. Roossinck reports that “SARS-CoV-1 was more aggressive and lethal than SARS-CoV-2.
However, SARS-CoV-2 spreads faster, sometimes with hidden symptoms allowing each infected person to infect several others.” (Roossinck, 4) Furthermore, it is easy to track down SARS’ symptoms because they would show within two to three days. However, with COVID-19, it could take up to two weeks before symptoms actually come to fruition. There are even some people who have the virus but don’t show any symptoms at all. (Ibid) Even with its slight differences, how did the people of Hong Kong then return to their daily lives despite the catastrophes SARS had created? The answer is discipline, care, and collective consciousness.
When it was time for the city to reopen, there was immense fear and trepidation. However, I distinctly remembered the rigorous rules that were recommended to all the residents living in the city. Everyone, of all ages, was taught to follow simple procedures that were to be implemented into our daily routines. Seventeen years later, those same procedures are still incorporated into my own lifestyle. Hong Kongers were taught to wash their hands frequently, carry hand sanitizer, and wear masks in the public domain. Alongside movie banners and commercials, there were “How to prevent the spread of SARS” cartoons and posters posted all across the city; whether it was at bus stops, subway stations, or even in shopping malls. In a friendly manner, these cartoons taught people how to properly wash their hands, wear their masks, and conduct social distancing. Other health measures were employed by the city’s administration that included intense sanitization routine cleanups on all objects commonly touched by residents. Elevator buttons, public rails, roads, and all public transportations were sanitized daily every few hours without fail. Roads and streets were also sanitized by disinfectant sprays and misting with the help of the city’s cleanup and sanitization crews. Hong Kong’s airport had a temperature check outpost which monitors the temperature of incoming passengers. You can still see this temperature check post when you travel to Hong Kong, with people monitoring the screens while wearing masks. The greatest factor is how these health measures were incorporated into the minds of each Hong Konger, regardless of their age. It can be difficult at times to ensure that everybody should wear a mask, but the greatest fight against SARS was that every person who lived through the pandemic took it upon themselves to integrate these measures into their lifestyles regardless of how inconvenient they may be. The safety measures became so useful that even today, like Fukuda previously said, you will see people wearing masks even when there is no outbreak of any sort. The trauma endured by SARS morphed into the collective consciousness of people in Asia and further rooted a sense of community that is already a part of many diverse cultures in the Asian continent. In the end, it was no longer about one person or one family, but it was about the entire community and to prevent a repeat of the desolation caused by the SARS outbreak.
Seventeen Years Later and a Post COVID-19 World
Getting those masks on, NY days - Photo Courtesy of Aanchal Bhattacharya
It is now September 2020, and I’m in New York City, isolated from my family and friends. Frequent discussions and video calls with loved ones make me realize how living through the SARS pandemic in Hong Kong has taught me the basics of surviving pandemics and outbreaks. I now realize that 17 years later, I too still practice the health measures that were taught to us. Whether it’s frequently washing my hands, trying to avoid touching my face due to bacteria transmission, carrying hand sanitizer everywhere I go, and wearing a face mask in public areas.
COVID-19 feels like a ghastly fever dream; the same chronic nightmare from 2003. The virus’s unpredictable and aggressive nature has affected the minds and bodies of millions. It has altered the inner workings of many industries and has pushed the world to enter a new era of improvisation. Just like the SARS pandemic, what COVID-19 has revealed is that the world is truly interconnected. It does not matter which corner of the world you live in; what matters is to understand how we associate with one another on both a macro and micro level. I know that COVID-19 will also eventually disappear like SARS did. After all, humans are resilient and we persevere in the toughest of situations. All it takes is to instill that collective consciousness and be responsible not just for ourselves, but for the planet, its animals, and each other. The experience of fighting COVID-19 will be imprinted onto our minds forever, but I am hopeful that we will come out more compassionate and loving to each other and this world. Perhaps now is the time to wake up and build a beautiful future for the generations to come.
Gopalan, Nisha. March 2020. “SARS Lessons Inoculate Hong Kong Against Epidemic” in Bloomberg Opnion, Bloomberg, New York. Accessed on September 2, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-03-07/coronavirus-sars-lessons-reduce-hong-kong-infection-rate
Roossinck, Marilyn, J. May 2020. “The Mysterious Disappearance of the First SARS virus, and Why we Need a Vaccine for the Current One but didn’t for the Other” in The Conversation, The Conversation.com. Accessed on September 13, 2020. https://theconversation.com/the-mysterious-disappearance-of-the-first-sars-virus-and-why-we-need-a-vaccine-for-the-current-one-but-didnt-for-the-other-137583
McLaughlin, Timothy. March 2020. “A Glimpse of the Coronavirus’s Possible Legacy – The Imprint SARS has Left on Hong Kong Speaks to the Legacy COVID-19 may well Leave on Much of the World” in The Atlantic, New York. Accessed on August 12, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/03/hong-kong-sars-china-coronavirus-covid19/608131/
NBC News. March 2020. “Tri-State at 93 COVID-19 Cases and Counting; Cuomo Declares State of Emergency for NY” in NBC News, New York. Accessed on August 25, 2020. https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/tri-state-at-49-covid-19-cases-and-counting-as-nationwide-death-toll-climbs-to-17/2316253/
Taylor, Adam. March 2020. “Hong Kong Learned from SARS. Can the United States Learn from Hong Kong?” in Today’s WorldView, The Washington Post, Washington D.C. Accessed on August 12, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/03/12/hong-kong-learned-sars-can-united-states-learn-hong-kong/
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Aanchal Bhattacharya is ink.’s content contributor and staff writer. Aanchal holds a first-class joint honors degree in history and religious studies from McGill University. She is also a Wasserman Scholar and has a master’s degree in cinema studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. From indulging in creative writing to directing short films, Aanchal’s passion has driven her to artistically express herself in this ever-changing world. She has inspiration flowing through her veins.
No matter how busy life gets, Aanchal always makes time for watching movies/television shows, listening to awesome music, and engaging in inspiring “food for thought” discussions with family and friends.