THE current coronavirus scare brings back memories of the (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) Sars outbreak of 2003. I was then at the epicenter of the outbreak—at the People’s Republic of China.
The Sars outbreak began in November of 2002 in Guangdong, China. But this outbreak was unknown to the world until February of 2003 when China notified the World Health Organization of the rising cases and deaths from this mysterious virus.
By April of 2003, China became more transparent. Still, it was rumored that numbers were being under-reported. Beijingers told me that when Chinese newspapers carry bad news, it is almost certain that reality is much worse.
I laud China’s greater transparency today and believe that the lockdowns are justified in order to contain the virus from spreading exponentially, globally. But I can only imagine how being sealed off from the rest of the world feels. It was my greatest fear in 2003. Thankfully, a Beijing lockdown never happened.
In the beginning, I was calm. Because like the rest of the 13 million residents of Beijing, I was kept ignorant of the facts. This was before the era of social media. Within weeks, however, I learned from a close friend whose father was a government doctor that the situation was much graver than what we had been made to believe.
On the phone with my mother, one day, I unexpectedly broke down. The thought of being trapped in a foreign country, not knowing when this outbreak would end, possibly getting infected by this mysterious virus and dying alone, away from home, just broke me.
In May of 2003, I finally left. By then, the exodus of expats was in full steam. Beijing was a ghost town. A few school campuses, apartment buildings and hospitals had been sealed off overnight. The nightmare that consumed me daily had begun.
As I stepped out of my apartment building the day I was to fly home, building security approached me. Cold fear gripped my heart. I remember glancing at the meter-high fence that stood between me and the car that would take me to the airport.
I swear I would have leapt over the fence and made a run for the car had security attempted to stop me from leaving. But imagination is always worse than reality. The guy only wanted to ask how long I would be away so he could keep watch over my apartment.
The scene at the airport was surreal. A sea of face masks. Hazmat suits. Three temperature checks: by body scanner, by ear thermometer and by strip thermometer.
It was my Beijinger friends who finally told me it was time to go. “We have nowhere to go,” they told me, “but you have a home to go home to, so go.” It was an emotional good-bye. And like my American colleague who had left the country three days earlier, I left the city I had grown to love, in tears.
China is doing the right thing today.