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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 May, 2003, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Living with China's Sars threat

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC correspondent in Beijing

When news of the Sars epidemic in Beijing first broke I was sitting in a tent in southern Iraq.

Usually in this job you get to go off to unreasonably dangerous places, while your spouse and children stay somewhere nice and safe. Now, suddenly, southern Iraq felt unreasonably safe, while my wife and children sat in the eye of the storm in Beijing.

Frantic telephone calls followed. "Get on a plane and get out of there," I told my wife. At the other end of the line there was an air of remarkable calm. "There's really no need to panic, she said, "it's really quite all right here," she said.

A woman wears a protective mask
Streets in Beijing have been almost deserted
How many times had I sat at the end of a telephone line in some far-away country telling my wife exactly the same thing. I always expected her to trust my judgement but, being a typical male, I completely failed to trust hers now.

I fled back to Kuwait, then on to Bahrain, Bangkok and finally to Beijing.

On any normal Sunday morning in April or May, Beijing Airport would be crammed with tourists fresh off their overnight flights from Europe. Instead the baggage hall stood eerily empty, the only sound the clunk of a single baggage carousel carrying a few lonely suitcases.

In the city, the streets were deserted, shops shuttered. A few cars drifted along the second ring road - again eerie. Beijing is a city of close to 14 million people.

'Keep out'

On Sundays its streets should be thronged with shoppers, hawkers and out-of-towners in their Sunday best, gawping at the shiny glass buildings. Where had they all gone?

Back to their homes and locked themselves in, such was the terror of Sars. In villages around Beijing, they were setting up roadblocks to keep out strangers.

A doctor inside a Beijing hospital
No one knows what to believe any more
At one I came across a middle-aged man wielding an iron bar and looking anything but friendly.

"Can I go in?" I asked. "No," he answered, swinging the iron bar in a deliberately menacing manner.

"Why not?" I asked. "The virus," he said. "The virus comes from the city, we don't want anyone from the city coming in here."

But, within days of returning to the bosom of my family, my own anxieties about the virus began to lift. My children laughed and joked as they ran around the playground with their friends. The deserted streets even helped. No one on the streets meant no one to catch Sars from.

It's surprising how quickly humans can adjust to new levels of danger. You find it in conflict zones where people still go about their daily business apparently oblivious even as shells crash around them.

Passing it on

And so it is with Sars, life here is returning to some kind of normality. Cars are back on the streets. There are even traffic jams again. People are going back to restaurants and shops. But it is a new kind of normality, and an emotional rollercoaster.

One day last week I woke up in a sweat. The World Health Organization had just reported that Sars could survive outside the human body for days, maybe even weeks. It could be passed from one person to anther on everyday objects like door handles and table tops.

A health worker disinfects a door handle of a restaurant
Health bodies have reported that Sars can be passed on via ordinary objects
My anxiety level once again soared. As I got in to the lift in the office, I gingerly pressed the button using the end of my car key. I started scrubbing my hands every hour. I watched everyone for the slightest sign of a fever or cough.

On days like these, one starts to question whether enough isn't enough, whether it isn't time to pack up and get out.

Part of the problem is that even now no one really knows what to believe. Few here trust what the government is telling them. I know I don't, nor do most of my Chinese friends.

"They've only owned up to the Sars epidemic in Beijing because they got found out," says one Chinese friend. "Now they're worried about foreign investors pulling out so they're finally doing something. If it was only a case of ordinary people dying they wouldn't do anything."

And, as the Sars epidemic here enters its second month, there is a growing realisation that it will not be over any time soon. Unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, China does not have Sars under control.

It's spreading from Beijing to other cities and from the cities to the countryside. It's one thing to ride out a short epidemic. But now we're all having to get used to the idea that we'll be living with Sars for a long time to come.

There is, however, one big difference between me and my Chinese friends. If the day comes when I've had enough, I have the option of packing my bags and leaving. They don't.

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