Hong Kong: Crowded City Of Fear
And they are the first hint of what the SARS outbreak has done to this famous city. Correspondent Barry Petersen reports.
“It’s changed the way we go about our day-to-day lives,” says Whitney Small, a public relations executive originally from Brunswick, Maine.
"It’s not so much that you fear you’re going to be the next victim, it’s more that it’s creating a disturbance in what was already a very tense time in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong is a crowded city of fear, in a region that is now Ground Zero for a worldwide SARS outbreak.
It’s believed that SARS started in a neighboring Chinese province, and moved to Hong Kong after an infected doctor from that province visited the city.
In late February, he traveled to Hong Kong for a wedding, and stayed at the Metropole Hotel. He became what experts call a “super-spreader,” infecting at least six other tourists — possibly just by coughing or sneezing around them.
These tourists boarded planes back to their home countries -- Vietnam, Singapore, Canada -- and SARS started to spread at the speed of a jet plane.
In Hong Kong, it shows no signs of slowing. Just today, a 51-year-old American teacher, James Salisbury, died of SARS at a Hong Kong hospital. His six-year-old son, Mickey, was also rushed there. He’s believed to be infected as well.
Nearly 1,000 people have been infected, with more than two dozen victims dead so far. Doctors say those numbers could double or triple in the weeks ahead.
It is no wonder that SARS is changing almost every aspect of life in Hong Kong.
For Small, the changes start with her morning commute.
“It’s the first thing on everyone’s mind,” says Small, who has lived in Hong Kong for almost a decade. “The first thing people ask you is, 'What are you doing? How are you taking care of your family?'”
Health authorities now believe the virus potentially lives for up to six hours on a metal surface, like buttons on an elevator.
As a result, Whitney avoids shaking hands and touching handrails, or anything else that could transmit SARS.
“What you have to do is get to your office and wash your hands immediately,” says Whitney. “Washing your hands becomes almost obsessive compulsive.”
In the office, the daily routine goes on. But everyone worries about SARS.
Wendy Kwok’s sister is seven months pregnant.
“I just need to be a lot more careful about what I do, where I go and be careful not to go to a crowded area, so that when I see her, I’ve washed my hands and all that.”
Christine Ahn just arrived in Hong Kong two months ago from Chicago, and her anxious parents are sending her face masks – and numerous emails.
“Two or three emails per day, asking me, 'Why don’t you come home right now?'” says Ahn.
Lydia Lau’s brother is in an emergency room treating SARS patients.
“He’s not going back to his home, and his wife and his kid are not able to see him for two weeks,” says Lau.
Her brother’s caution makes sense, because doctors and nurses treating SARS have been among its primary victims.
Carlo Urbani was an internationally known specialist in infectious disease, who treated one of the first cases in Vietnam. He paid with his life.
In Hong Kong, SARS spreads quickly through hospitals. There is no safe haven, even if you get sick.
“I don’t even feel comfortable going to a doctor,” says Whitney. “I don’t even want to think about getting sick.”
Increasingly, Hong Kong is a city of untouchables. Anyone in close contact could spread the virus. They may not even know they’re infected as they pass it along.
So people now avoid subways, buses and shopping malls. Their fear translates into a growing economic crisis -- far worse than after 9/11. Store sales are off 50 percent, tourism down 90 percent. This could trigger a recession across Asia, one of America’s prime markets. If so, the U.S. will feel the pain as well.
The Chinese government tried to avoid the economic fallout by ignoring the disease for months, hoping it would go away. But now, China is letting international investigators into the hardest hit areas -- and that has issued an unprecedented apology to the world.
However, this is little comfort to hard-hit businesses. To show us how bad it is, Whitney took us to one of Hong Kong’s most popular dim sum restaurants, a place where lines at lunchtime are usually out the door. The restaurant is now half empty.
“I hate to think of what it’s going to mean for restaurant owners throughout town,” says Whitney. “Certainly a lot of them have talked about how bad their business is and what length of time they can survive if business continues at the level of what we’re looking at today.”
With a war in Iraq, and the world fearful of terrorism, people in Hong Kong figured this, out of all places, was a safe place to be.
“Everyone told us that we would escape the brunt of this war, but we found our own in our own backyard, literally,” says Whitney. “So this is our war and it’s one we’re going to have to deal with for a while.”
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