Another SARS? | Inquirer Opinion

Another SARS?

/ 05:02 AM January 18, 2020

Sporadic reports in the media of a potentially dangerous pneumonia virus in some regions of China make me nervous. The reports say precautions have been taken at Mactan’s International Airport where large numbers of Chinese tourists arrive daily, a main measure being a “passive thermal imaging machine” that Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia says is in place at the airport. That device scans arrivals who, if found to have a fever, are isolated and quarantined. Still I feel nervous, as one or two lax airport officials may unwittingly let sick persons into Cebu and the country.Cebu’s SunStar newspaper carried a headline quoting a quarantine official who told the public “not to panic,” urging all to “fortify their immune system and observe proper hygiene.”

I’d been living in Hong Kong, teaching English for some 35 years when SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) hit the territory in November 2002. The media started tracking the disease after unprecedented numbers of locals began falling ill.


The virus still didn’t have a name but was soon identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as SARS. It began when a doctor who’d treated severe pneumonia cases in Guangdong went to visit relatives in Hong Kong and booked himself in a Kowloon hotel, the Metropole. He soon got sick and was hospitalized. Some of the medics treating him at the main government hospital promptly came down with the bug.

Hong Kong’s efficient health department immediately began to monitor the cases. It was in constant touch with the WHO as it probed for SARS’ causes and sources. When it was found that people on the same floor on the Metropole as the Guangdong doctor were getting sick, health officials sealed off the hotel, hoping to contain the disease. They found that the hotel’s sewer system was spreading the virus.


Initially as the crisis unfolded, China’s controlled media delayed reporting to the WHO, refusing to let officials into the country. When they relented, the virus was pinpointed on a farmer in Foshan County. Palm civet cats sold in markets were found to be a reservoir for the virus.

Some of the doctors and nurses treating patients in Hong Kong’s main government hospital started to fall ill, and a couple eventually died. The government issued warnings to the public and shut down schools. The US consulate, which cut down on its staff, urged American citizens to avoid travel to China.

WHO issued a global alert on SARS, indicating that global travel was spreading the disease.

After some months, deaths in 37 counties in southern China peaked at 8,098. Most of the cases were in China, but Hong Kong was hit hard, ending up with 299 fatalities. Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore were also affected. For some reason South Korea was unaffected (some wags attributed it to the fact that Koreans eat lots of kimchi, apparently considered a great disinfectant).

The case of the Filipina resident of Canada who had been in Manila and then returned to Toronto via Hong Kong was the first reported case in Canada, where it was contained.

I shall never forget the eerie sight of Cathay Pacific planes all parked at the airport when I took off for the United States. My flight was on one of few airlines that still flew in and out of the territory. As the epidemic grew worse, I fled. My two US-based daughters urged me to get away since I’m asthmatic. Once in San Francisco I followed Hong Kong news (worried about friends left behind), and saw a news photograph of young girls wearing masks doing their exercises at the barre.

I returned to Hong Kong over three months later, when reports declared the territory clear.


In his 1936 book “An American Doctor’s

Odyssey,” Victor Heiser, who was commissioner of health in the Philippines during the colonial era, has a chapter headed “Washing up the Orient.” He writes that the quarantine department during Spanish times had been run on a “simple system.” It was such that whenever an outbreak of plague, cholera or smallpox in China or Japan occurred, it would inevitably be followed by an outbreak in the Philippines. He instituted the American system using water, soap and disinfectant used “rigorously on incoming Chinese, sometimes forcibly.”

Conversing with a Cebuana friend recently about the pneumonia scare, she stated that Koreans come from a “cleaner country” compared to China. She was not making a racist pronouncement, but having traveled the region, she had formed that impression. It did little to allay my fears of a possible epidemic here.

Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the late 1980s.

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