28 April 2009

Return of the Masks - Part 1 口罩回歸-上卷


The sudden outbreak of swine flu in Mexico has grabbed the world by the throat. A highly contagious strand of the H1N1 virus, capable of human-to-human transmission, has spread to nearly 20 countries on every continent. Every few hours, CNN updates its country-by-country tally of confirmed and suspected cases like an Olympics medal count. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were quick to declare the outbreak a public health emergency, just short of calling it an all-out pandemic.



This morning, Hong Kong woke up to newsstands plastered with the familiar images of worried citizens wearing those ominous powder blue face masks, except this time the epicenter was a hemisphere away in Mexico City. In the office, I sat through a debriefing session on our disaster recovery plan handed down from the Paris head office. At lunch time, busy salarymen slowed their pace to watch live coverage of the news story on LCD screens, united in a single thought: we’ve been there, we know what it’s like. Six years ago, a sudden outbreak of SARS brought Hong Kong to its knees. The furtive virus with an awkward name made seven million citizens prisoners of their own homes and took away three hundred innocent lives. In a case of life imitating art, Hong Kongers were helplessly praying for a deus ex machine as did citizens of Oran in Albert Camus’ existentialist classic The Plague.



I was in New York when SARS hit Asia in 2003 and was therefore spared from one of the darkest episodes in our city’s history. Every time my brother Kelvin regaled me with first hand accounts of those terrifying six months, a strange feeling of envy would overcome me. He was part of a true defining moment of Hong Kong and I had missed out on it. In much the same way, my other brother Dan was envious of my being in New York City the morning those planes hit the twin towers. I suppose the fortune cookie wish “may you live in interesting times” is not without its truth.


I will always remember the weekend I flew from New York to visit my parents in Toronto during the SARS outbreak. Until then I had no idea that the rest of Canada viewed the respiratory ailment as a “Chinese disease.” On the subway train or in the restaurant, the arrival of a Chinese person (or anyone who looked like one) would draw unwelcome attention, a whisper here and a stare there, our faces suddenly a scarlet letter. Every sneeze or cough from the banished group would cause a minor panic followed by frightened faces scurrying away. The anecdote made me wonder if Hispanic immigrants around the world will experience a similar racial backlash from this swine flu outbreak. Crises, after all, have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us.


All eyes are now on the Mexican government to see how it responds to the epidemic. Between the swine flu and the equally deadly drug cartel violence that has all but plunged the country into anarchism, 2009 has not been a good year for Mexico. But just as SARS has made Hong Kong a world leader in disease control and thrust our own Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍) to the top job as Director-General of the W.H.O., perhaps Mexico too will come out of the swine flu outbreak stronger and more united than ever.


23 comments:

  1. "May you live in interesting time..." Well, I guess very much depends on where you stand, and if you can live through it.

    Embracing tough situations, more often than not, is easier said than done. For the lucky survivors, "interesting" time could be life-changing moments. A bitter lemon? Or compassionate involver? We'll see...

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  2. The word "interesting" was part of the pseudo-Chinese aphorism. It was not chosen to make light of the situation. I certainly hope that every country will get through this outbreak relatively unscathed.

    Jason

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  3. The world is becoming small. just watching news and i could feel the impact of swine flu already.

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  4. There is a morbid sense of excitement that draws us to the news on TV, even though we know people are suffering and dying from the epidemic...

    Jason

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  5. "Every time my brother Kelvin regaled me with first hand accounts of those terrifying six months, a strange feeling of envy would overcome me. He was part of a true defining moment of Hong Kong and I had missed out on it."

    Agreed. That was how I felt during the SARS outbreak. In fact I still feel that way. I almost feel culturally deprived and a sense of disunity.

    Even though I grew up in the States, I still think of Hong Kong as my birth place, my home, or simply where my heart is. Yet besides July 1st of 1997, I've essentially missed every significant and historical moment it has endured during the past 22 years.

    I currently go to school in San Diego, only 20 minutes away from Mexico. The risk definitely exists and should be treated seriously, unfortunately wearing face masks is somewhat taboo in our society.

    Let's hope we will get over this ASAP!

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  6. Grace, I missed the 1997 Handover altogether! I watched it on television from my Toronto home, right around the time when Princess Diana was killed in that Paris tunnel. It was a very eventful summer.

    Jason

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  7. "On the subway train or in the restaurant, the entrance of every Chinese person (or anyone who looked like one) would rouse unwelcome attention, a whisper here and a stare there, our faces suddenly a scarlet letter."

    I certainly felt this. At the time, I had just flown back from Beijing/HK to start uni in Canada. I was told to quarantine myself for 10 days. None of my friends wanted to see me, except for one very daring chap. I felt like I was being treated like some sort of leprosy-carrier even though I was perfectly healthy. It was personally heartbreaking for me to see Beijing and Hong Kong, my two homes, to become synonymous with disease center, and to see there being this widespread,temporarily, implicitly and legally agreed excuse to discriminate against a certain race and to place blame on another race for one's failings. I do empathize with the Mexicans right now. It's like the golden chance for whoever was anti-Mexican before the swine flu to now come up in arms against this region. Just the other day, I think I heard in Bloomberg someone saying: "There is no reason why people would want to invest in Mexico".

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  8. Karin,

    I am glad to hear corroborative testimony from you! Thanks for sharing your own stories, and I really appreciate active readers like yourself. If you don't already have one, you should consider writing your own blog!

    Keep reading and commenting!

    Jason

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  9. ha ha, i do like the idea of writing a blog. I have one already, which I started 3 years ago, but I realize that it has become a personal diary where I rant about everything rather than writing something interesting and constructive. My current blog is only open to my close girl-friends. I also contribute to the MBA Admissions Cracker blog, which is basically a round up of trends and news on the MBA front to help potential MBA candidates. Once I find another topic that I relate to personally (other than my personal life), then I will probably start writing another blog. Otherwise, I'll just react to and comment on yours for now.

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  10. "Crises, after all, have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us"

    Yes, I agree. Hong Kong is clearly still going through the aftershock of SARS.Based on current transmission pattern, It is anticipated that it will be just a matter of time before swine flu afflicts Hong Kong. Let's keep our fingers crossed and have faith in our health system.

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  11. Danny, thanks for your comments. It would be scary if/when the virus hits Hong Kong. With everyone living in such close quarters with each other, it wouldn't take much (or long) for the virus to spread around.

    Jason

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  12. I was in Australia when SARS occurred. Even though I had regular updates with family, I felt a sense of detachment. However, right now I am in London... Its quite interesting how countries are handling the swine flu differently...the face masks are back in HK but for some reason no one seems to bother here. They aren’t advocating wearing face masks either... I am a little worried but i think it might have to do with the continuous updates on BBC24 every 15mins as compared to a weekly update on SARs on Australian TV back then...I so hope this ‘flu’ blows over soon...wishful thinking since its early days...but am still hoping!
    ~nutty

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  13. Thanks for sharing, Nutty. I can't wait to go back to Hong Kong and catch up on the latest developments.

    Jason

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  14. luckily it seems to be under control in HK..no more that 1 case..

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  15. The lockdown of the Metropark Hotel seems a bit drastic.

    Jason

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  16. I was working at the airport when SARS hit Hong Kong. And I haven't seen HKIA (Hong Kong International Airport) without people. It was like a ghost-town. People were scared, so scared that everyone, almost everyone, had a mask on. You couldn't find a person without a mask. It was a very very scary moment in life. I certainly do not want something like SARs to hit Hong Kong again.

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  17. Thanks for the first-hand account, Sonic. I heard airline crews are now very concerned about traveling to the U.S. and Canada, where the swine flu outbreak seems to have surpassed the one in Mexico.

    Jason

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  18. masks...again...
    no.........

    Sally

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  19. how funny "chinese disease" was that CANADA ? I heard it has 0ZERO level social, racial cultural or any other discremination.SARS was a global epademic & H5N1 was found in birds arround the world.

    Back in 2003 masks were for sale everywhere even on newsstands in HK.We used to clean frequently every thing even mouse keyboard, telephone & throwing everything with stubborn dirts...SHOULD we we be doing all those once again--one more time?

    Sairniabat

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  20. Here, PIGGY PIGGY PIGGY

    Gavin

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  21. 好....是好 information 的..谢谢 Jason哥你.GOD BLESS U.

    Chandra

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  22. Very well written, impartial and interesting article Jason :)

    Shannon

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