Sometimes I hear people say, "SARS wasn't so bad. Only a few [hundred] people died. I think it was overhyped." But they weren't in one of the worst-affected cities. They didn't watch a city of 2 million become a ghost town, eerily quiet except for the ambulance sirens. They weren't quarantined, locked in their apartments. They weren't there. They don't know.
In the Spring of 2003 I was teaching English and living in Taiyuan, Shanxi, China- a city of 2 million or so, with the third highest sars (1) rate in China- maybe the world. This is my record, as I remember it, of that time.
We heard of the disease early, before it had a name, and before anyone really knew anything about it. One of the foreign teachers was from Guangzhou, and had taught a class of doctors. One of those doctors told her about a strange new disease they were encountering. Nobody thought much of it- there's always some strange new disease floating around Guangzhou. It is a crowded, sub-tropical city with probably the worst city planning or sanitation of any major city in China. In fact, I'm not entirely sure the disease she mentioned was sars- but it seems likely.
Anyways, that was in the fall of 2002. By early 2003, the disease became news, and people started dying. Most of the victims were in Guangzhou. Then someone carried it to Beijing, and from there it leapt to other cities around the country, and beyond. A group of government officials met in Beijing, and then returned to their provincial homes. Someone at that meeting had sars, and the officials carried the disease home with them. One of the officials returned to a small city in our province. Three days later, over 400 people in that city were in the hospital, on respirators.
It spread to my city. At first, people wore face masks (which were probably useless), and went about their business as normal- or almost normal. In China, the sidewalk is like a great open-air club, where people socialize and do all manner of business, or just watch the passers-by. But now, people began to find reasons to stay home. If they didn't have to go out, they didn't.
I taught many private lessons at that time, but students stopped showing up for some of the lessons. Then the lessons were cancelled. As the number of new cases rose daily, stores stayed closed, employees stopped going to work- even the threat of being fired, in a city where finding a job was difficult, couldn't get workers to leave their apartments. Finally, the managers gave up, and closed down many businesses.
Before long, the city or provincial authorities decided- for the students' own safety- to quarantine the university where I worked and lived. The teachers could come and go- with special passes- but the students were locked in. This was done without warning, and some students who were outside when the university was quarantined were locked out, and couldn't get back in. Also, the university was divided into two main campuses. Students who lived in the southern campus couldn't go to their classes in the northern campus, and vice-versa.
Still, the cases multiplied- exponentially. Someone- I think it was an official Chinese government page- kept a tally of new cases in different cities in China. We checked them daily.
Taiyuan was now like a ghost town. I went off the campus as little as possible, but when I did I saw city buses that were once packed to overflowing go by with just the driver and a single passenger. Passersby on the street all wore masks, and gave each other a wide berth. There were no street vendors, and few restaurants or stores were open. Department stores had employees at the doors with thermometers or heat scanners to check if you had a high temperature (one of the early warning signs of sars). You couldn't enter an apartment building without showing I.D. to a guard at the front door, proving you lived there (unusual in China). Guests were not allowed. The scariest thing was whole neighbourhoods which built barricades (in one case, a very solid looking brick wall) to keep out strangers. The barricades were not planned by the city- they were built by the residents themselves.
On the university campuses, the opposite happened. Students, who couldn't leave the campus, now filled the lanes and green spaces between the buildings. The university opened a fruit and vegetable market, so faculty wouldn't have to shop outside, and many of the students probably ate more fresh fruit then, than they usually did. In fact, with students playing badminton and soccer everywhere, or sitting on the sidewalk playing cards, it almost seemed like one big party. I'm sure some students look back at that time as the best time of their lives. I was going through a personal hell (which I won't get into here) but under different circumstances I too might have found it exciting.
Still, it took its toll psychologically. A few students jumped the wall to escape. Others called their parents on the phone, for hours. Parents came to the campus gates and passed small packages to their children. (A few girlfriends and boyfriends came too, I think.) In class, it was difficult for my students or myself to concentrate, and if anyone coughed... well, let's just say they were suddenly sitting alone. Some students even wore their masks to class.
As I mentioned before, the teachers had passes to go outside, and against the advice of our director, we met with other foreigners downtown for fellowship, as we did every Sunday. Well, one of those foreigners developed a severe, persistent cough. The doctors didn't know if it was sars, but they weren't taking any chances. We would have to be quarantined in our hotel. They put bicycle chain locks on the doors (if there was a fire, we would have been out of luck!), and brought groceries up to us. At first, the man who brought our supplies wore only a mask and gloves. The next day he was wearing a full moon suit- and by the time I opened the door, he was already half-way down the hallway. Finally, after about four days, we learned that our friend had bronchitis, not sars, and we were let out.
Then, suddenly, for reasons nobody even today understands, it stopped. The number of new cases dropped for the first time, with fewer the next day, until one day there were no new cases. We held our breaths. 2 days. 3 days, then 4. Finally, a week without new cases. There were still many patients in the hospital, but at last it was over. The city slowly revived. By the time I left, in June, everything seemed almost normal.
Last year I was in a bookstore, and saw- in passing- a book with 'sars' in the title. My whole body suddenly went cold. I picked up the book to look at it, and as I skimmed through the pages, I noticed my hands were shaking. Those four little letters. The worst three months of my life.
1 You'll pardon me if I put 'sars' in small letters- I just can't bear to see it larger.
I once had a discussion with a friend who insisted that 'religion is not ethnicity'. It started me wondering if that is really true. In some parts of the world, ethnic groups seem to be defined by religion as much as 'race' or language. For example, we now think of someone who is 'Greek' as speaking Greek, and as someone who is 'Turkish' as speaking Turkish. But when Greece first gained its independence, and the two populations were intermingled in both Greece and Turkey, 'Greeks' were defined as Orthodox Christians, while 'Turks' were defined as Muslims. Language was secondary; so that someone who was Christian but spoke Turkish was defined as 'Greek', while someone who was Muslim but spoke Greek was a 'Turk'. That definition still persists today, and Greece claims that Albanian-speaking Christians in southern Albania (where the majority are Muslim) are actually 'Greeks'.
More recently, in Bosnia, when the 3 main 'ethnicities' were fighting, what really distinguished them? They all spoke the same language and shared virtually the same culture, living together for centuries. But the Croats were Catholic, the Serbs were Orthodox, and the Muslims were, of course, Muslim. If a Croat converts to Orthodoxy, is he then a Serb? How about a Muslim who becomes Catholic? Is she then a Croat? In Bosnian society, religion is not a flexible thing- a mere matter of personal conscience. It is almost a betrayal of one's community. In fact, Muslim communities throughout the Balkans are often seen by the Christian majority as 'collaborators' who betrayed their compatriots and converted for personal gain. (Whether that was true or not, centuries ago, the present generation can hardly be blamed for it.)
In Iraq today, most commentators refer to Shiites and Sunnis as if they are two ethnic groups- which, in essence, they are- but defined by religion, not physical characteristics or language, as both groups are Arabs. Even where there is a conflict between two truly distinct 'ethnic' groups, religion is still, often, a factor. Armenians and Azerbis speak different languages and have very different cultural traditions, but it is the religious factor- that Armenians are Christians and Azerbis Muslim- that has made the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh so bloody. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, the Tamils and Singhalese speak different languages, but they are also of different religions: Hindu and Buddhist, respectively. Would their conflict have been so violent and unresolvable if they were of the same religion? I wonder.
The examples of religiously-defined ethnic groups are numerous: Sikhs in India, Maronites and Druze in Lebanon, Jews everywhere, and Mormons in the United States. Even in Canada, part of the 'French Canadian' identity is their Catholic heritage. The concept of religion as a matter of personal conscience, unrelated to an individual's status in his community, is historically recent, and a result of the humanism and individualism which emerged in Europe after the Reformation, and during the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, it has not been universally accepted, as we saw recently in Afghanistan, with the Muslim who converted to Christianity. In parts of the world where Christians and Muslims, or Muslims and Hindus, or Protestants and Catholics (N. Ireland) are killing each other, simply for being of a different religion, it's not exactly surprising that anyone who converts is looked at with suspicion. As long as religion continues to be used to define who is "us" and who is "them"- who is "in" the group (and can therefore be trusted) and who is "out" (and must be feared), this will continue to be the case.