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How SARS trauma made Hong Kong distrust Beijing

Quartz logo Quartz 12/02/2020 Ilaria Maria Sala
Hundreds of people apply for the Sun Hung Kai Properties' 'anti-Sars ambassadors' for its commercial and shopping centres. A 300 workers are to be hired to fight Sars. 29 April 2003 (Photo by Robert Ng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) Hundreds of people apply for the Sun Hung Kai Properties' 'anti-Sars ambassadors' for its commercial and shopping centres. A 300 workers are to be hired to fight Sars. 29 April 2003 (Photo by Robert Ng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

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You may think Hong Kong people look irrational in these days of coronavirus: they queue for hours for masks, even if many doctors repeat that, in most situations, they are not all that necessary or even helpful. They stock up on hand wipes, bleach and disinfectant, leaving shelves empty. They buy up all the toilet paper and tissues they can find, just upon a rumor that circulates online and in telephone chat groups warning supplies from China might run short.

But this behavior isn’t proof of an illogical and superstitious population: call it the consequences of trauma.

Video: Still 'too early to say if China learnt its lesson' from SARS outbreak (CNBC)

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Hong Kong is on edge as it waits to see if the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,000 people in mainland China, will spread in the territory, where it has already killed one man and infected nearly 50. People don’t believe they can count on the government, either the one here in Hong Kong or the one in Beijing, to keep them safe and tell them the truth.

That lack of trust between thecity’s people and the local and central authorities runs deep, and worsened last year over more than six months of protests that rocked Hong Kong. The events of 17 years ago were responsible for cementing that distrust, when Hong Kong found itself alone for weeks as a mysterious new virus killed hundreds while central authorities in Beijing remained silent.

Medical staff leave a meeting which discussed SARS procedures at the Sino-Japanese hospital in Beijing. The hospital is clearing all non-sars patients and will be an exclusive sars hospital from this Saturday. (Photo by Mark Ralston/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) Medical staff leave a meeting which discussed SARS procedures at the Sino-Japanese hospital in Beijing. The hospital is clearing all non-sars patients and will be an exclusive sars hospital from this Saturday. (Photo by Mark Ralston/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

The eventual tally of victims of SARS in Hong Kong shows how high a price the city paid: Out of 774 deaths globally, 299 took place in Hong Kong, while 349 died in the mainland.

In an uncanny parallel with the ongoing outbreak in mainland China, SARS hit Hong Kong at a time of heightened political strife. At the end of 2002, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive after the handover of sovereignty from British to Chinese rule, was spearheading the introduction of the controversial Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-Constitution. This stipulates that Hong Kong “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government”—a provision that was revised to be more stringent after the widespread support shown by Hong Kong to the students who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square.

A customer holds toilet paper at a market, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RC27WE9PFGOV © Provided by Quartz A customer holds toilet paper at a market, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RC27WE9PFGOV

Throughout the second half of December 2002 people had been marching and holding rallies asking the government to withdraw the proposed Article 23 bill, and to have a much larger public consultation about it—or to wait for the implementation of full universal suffrage before imposing a law that could severely restrict local freedoms.

Then, as the new year set in, all activities, political and otherwise, came to a frightened halt. I was among the many journalists trying to comb through mailing lists and asking friends in China for their first-hand experiences, in the hope of making sense of what was happening.

SOCO briefing on Hong Kong's first legal case on SARS.  Fenny Tsang Chun-sim, widow whose husband died of SARS in Baptist Hospital, speaks on her court action to seek to publicise the hospital's SARS investigation report.  28 July 2004 (Photo by Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) SOCO briefing on Hong Kong's first legal case on SARS. Fenny Tsang Chun-sim, widow whose husband died of SARS in Baptist Hospital, speaks on her court action to seek to publicise the hospital's SARS investigation report. 28 July 2004 (Photo by Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

At the end of February a visitor from nearby Guangdong province, Liu Jianlun, came to Hong Kong to attend a wedding banquet and spent the night in a hotel. After one day, he went to hospital with shortness of breath, fever and heart palpitations. Ten days after having been admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, he died of acute pneumonia. He became known as “patient zero” for Hong Kong.

Gallery: Coronavirus and more - a brief history of quarantines (StarsInsider)

Thing is, nobody knew anything. Actually, that’s not quite correct, as somebody did: the authorities in Guangdong and Beijing knew, but they weren’t telling. We now know that the first human case was identified in Guangdong on Nov. 16, and that on Jan. 23 health authorities in Guangdong produced an expert investigation report that was circulated only with some other mainland authorities. They didn’t send it to Hong Kong, nor to the World Health Organization—which was notified only Feb. 10, 2003.

SARS victims respond to the resignation of SHWF Dr EK Yeoh and punishment against senior members of Hospital Authority responsible for the outbreak of SARS. SOCO, Sham Shui Po. Pictured is Kong Wing-shing, a victim of SARS. 08 JULY 2004 (Photo by Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) SARS victims respond to the resignation of SHWF Dr EK Yeoh and punishment against senior members of Hospital Authority responsible for the outbreak of SARS. SOCO, Sham Shui Po. Pictured is Kong Wing-shing, a victim of SARS. 08 JULY 2004 (Photo by Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

December, January and February were the months when all rumors were left to thrive, just like the virus. No social media existed at the time, but people were frantically texting to each other about a new type of acute influenza that was making people cough and wheeze.

I remember going to Shenzhen in early March, and on the way back, as I was crossing the border at the Luo Wu checkpoint on foot, street vendors were trying to convince me to buy a surgical mask: “You should get one if you are going to Hong Kong.

HONG KONG, HONG KONG:  Recovered Sars patients and the family of the Sars victims hold placards outside the legislative building in Hong Kong 07 July 2004.  They were asking for senior health officals to take responsiblity for mishandling the Sars outbreak from March to June 2003. Banners are asking for the return of health and for the health minister to step down.   AFP PHOTO/SAMANTHA SIN  (Photo credit should read SAMANTHA SIN/AFP via Getty Images) © 2004 AFP HONG KONG, HONG KONG: Recovered Sars patients and the family of the Sars victims hold placards outside the legislative building in Hong Kong 07 July 2004. They were asking for senior health officals to take responsiblity for mishandling the Sars outbreak from March to June 2003. Banners are asking for the return of health and for the health minister to step down. AFP PHOTO/SAMANTHA SIN (Photo credit should read SAMANTHA SIN/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a strange disease there,” one said. I tried to argue that in that case she should be wearing one too as the disease was coming from Guangdong, and surely Shenzhen was not immune, but she just laughed me off pushing the masks towards me.

I didn’t buy any. There had been a text message redistributed about 125 million times in Guangdong, which read “There is a fatal flu in Guangzhou”—but either she hadn’t received it, or she wasn’t concerned.

A woman dons a masks in Hong Kong to protect against a killer outbreak of pneumonia known as SARS, 27 April 2003. 121 people have now died in Hong Kong from the disease known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which has decimated the tourist and travel industry. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo by Peter PARKS / AFP) (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images) A woman dons a masks in Hong Kong to protect against a killer outbreak of pneumonia known as SARS, 27 April 2003. 121 people have now died in Hong Kong from the disease known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which has decimated the tourist and travel industry. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo by Peter PARKS / AFP) (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

Through March and April Hong Kong became a terrified town. The virus spread incomprehensibly through a whole housing estate, affecting 321 people, and scaring medical workers overwhelmed by a virus too new to understand fast enough.

Daily briefings on the spread of the disease did nothing to allay fears: only slowly did the medical community understood how contagious the disease was once a patient had to be put under a respirator, but before this, doctors had to witness their colleagues get sick and even die. At least 70 medical staff died.

Ms Hong Yu (R) who is a former SARS patient breaks down as she sees a relative upon her release from the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in the north of Beijing. She was amongst a group of 18 patients who are the last SARS patients to leave the house which became famous after being built in one week. (Photo by Mark Ralston/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) Ms Hong Yu (R) who is a former SARS patient breaks down as she sees a relative upon her release from the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in the north of Beijing. She was amongst a group of 18 patients who are the last SARS patients to leave the house which became famous after being built in one week. (Photo by Mark Ralston/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

People didn’t know what to do. Some stayed home for weeks, venturing out only to get provisions. On March 12, 2003 WHO issued a worldwide alert about Hong Kong and Vietnam, keeping China out of it. Restaurants were closing down, the economy had come to a halt.

Tung had refused to close the airport, but hardly anyone was coming anyway. At the end of March, Sidney Cheung, a renowned surgeon and the former dean of medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong burst into tears in front of reporters, said we were battling “an unknown enemy” and called the situation “a Holocaust.”

Cabin crew member on body temperature test at the CLK airport. Hong Kong is on alert for SARS following an announcement in Taiwan of a SARS case. 17 December 2003 (Photo by Robert Ng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) Cabin crew member on body temperature test at the CLK airport. Hong Kong is on alert for SARS following an announcement in Taiwan of a SARS case. 17 December 2003 (Photo by Robert Ng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Wedding parties took place with everyone in a surgical mask, skipping the banquet. Nobody dared press the buttons of the lifts, or open doors. People were going around with shower caps on their heads, goggles, even surgical gloves. Undecided on how to react as the central government said nothing, the local authorities hesitated, too: only on April 17 did Betty Tung, the wife of the chief executive, visit Amoy Gardens to hand out masks, but she arrived so wrapped up in protective plastic that people felt more insulted than supported.

China started to admit to a few isolated cases. Then, on April 4, Jiang Yanyong, a military doctor, accused the authorities of a criminal cover up (paywall): He knew that in Beijing military hospital 309 hundreds of patients were being hidden from the WHO, and his public letter, smuggled to the international media, put an end to the cover up. President Hu Jintao admitted publicly the disease was still spreading on April 17.

Passengers fill up the health declaration form before the journey at the Chek Lap Kok airport.  Hong Kong is on alert for SARS following an announcement in Taiwan of a SARS case.  17 December 2003 (Photo by Robert Ng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) Passengers fill up the health declaration form before the journey at the Chek Lap Kok airport. Hong Kong is on alert for SARS following an announcement in Taiwan of a SARS case. 17 December 2003 (Photo by Robert Ng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Just two months before, on February 11, Zheng Dejiang, then Party Secretary of Guangdong, had called a press conference to say that there might have been a disease previously, but all was sorted out. No need to panic. And anyway, epidemics are a state secret.

As the weather became warmer, the virus subsided. The surgical masks felt sticky in the spring humidity, and most people had started to discard them. A short movie made by Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Chan, “Memories of Spring” summed up the transition from utter despair to a renewed will to fight. And fight Hong Kong did: so much so, that it put SARS behind it to take the streets again. Half a million people marched on July 1. They encircled the Legislative Council, and eventually stopped Article 23 from being implemented. But the betrayal from the central authorities, who kept the secret as hundreds died, could never be put entirely away.


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