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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Alarm sweeps HK over virus
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News Online

Hong Kong resident Jospeh Lai was at first unconcerned about a serious respiratory bug sweeping the territory.

One week later, the 35-year-old advertising employee has changed his mind.

"I would like to let you know I'm really scared," he told BBC News Online.

A woman wears a colourful mask on a street in Hong Kong
(A protective mask) is the most trendy accessory this year
Joseph Lai, 35
"Now I guess it is big trouble. Everyone wears a mask, including me," he said.

"Every day, 10 people or 20 people get that disease. SARS really threatens everybody here," he added.

There have also been reports of panic buying, as rumours - denied by the government - swept Hong Kong that the administration was planning to place the entire territory in quarantine.

Mr Lai estimated more than 80% of Hong Kong residents were now wearing masks, and said their price had tripled.

A protective mask "is the most trendy accessory this year", he joked.

"When you talk to various people, if you haven't worn a mask, they will treat you as an alien or something," he said.

Shirley Wong, 38, said members of the public now got annoyed with people who cough without covering up their mouths, or touch food without gloves.

"It's good; at least people (now) know they have to be aware of personal hygiene and considerate," she said.

A woman wearing a mask in an attempt to protect herself form SARS prays with incense in a Hong Kong temple
Hong Kong residents are taking all sorts of precautions
Some companies have begun asking employees to work shifts in groups in order to limit their exposure, Ms Wong added.

Ms Wong noted that smaller operations, like hers - she is marketing director for a cosmetics company - are doing no more than cleaning their ventilation facilities.

She said she was worried, not only about the health of the territory, but about the long-term economic affects of the disease.

"I am considering moving to some other areas, maybe China, not only because of the virus but also because of the financial situation," she said.

Lotte Pang, the managing editor of a business magazine in Hong Kong, is already getting out.

Wearing a mask used to draw peculiar looks from the person next to you, but it's now the other way round!
Wilfred Pau, Hong Kong

Ms Pang, 30, who spoke to News Online just hours before she was due to board a flight back to her native UK, said she felt safer monitoring SARS from abroad.

"I just don't see how's it's going to improve. I don't see any serious efforts to contain it," she said.

Ms Pang also said she was surprised by the apparent nonchalance of some Hong Kong residents, and criticised the territory's government.

If you turned to some other countries, I don't think they will welcome you, so how can you hide?
Joseph Lai
"I think they (the Hong Kong authorities) should have responded earlier. They waited for a long time before implementing the quarantine measures," she added.

"It's not good enough. They can be incompetent about everything else... but not when it risks the lives of the Hong Kong people," she said.

Priscilla Ng, 30, another Hong Kong resident, agreed that the government should have reacted to the virus more quickly.

"All they have done is a bit slow. If they have done it a bit quicker, maybe the situation would be in better control," she said.

"Last week I thought it would be OK, but now I'm wearing the mask as well," she added.

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