What it was like to live in Beijing through SARS


While the novel coronavirus continues to spread, this week’s column looks back at the epidemic that 2019-nCoV is most frequently compared to: SARS in 2003. Today’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora and updated on June 22, 2015:

What was it like to live in Beijing or Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS epidemic?

When word got out about SARS in March and April of 2003, there was a great deal of fear, of course, because there was so little information about the actual virulence of SARS, and because it seemed so easily communicable. Beijing’s initial efforts to cover it up didn’t help much, either.

But then by late April things had changed quite a bit, and at least in Beijing things were being handled with considerable competence. Many people were quarantined: In fact, the neighbors across the hall were, and we were basically told to stay indoors as much as possible. It was kind of amazing: No traffic on the streets, basically empty buses and subways, very few people even at the restaurants that remained open.

We all realized pretty early on that the death rate had fallen to under 3 percent and that even if you got it you were very unlikely to experience much worse than a bad cold. People were very careful, though, about disinfecting everything. Signs went up in elevators, subways, buses, restaurants, and taxis all declaring how recently the facilities in question had been disinfected. The smell of bleach, of carbolic acid, of Detol, and (oddly) of vinegar — which people believed would ward off SARS — was everywhere.

For me personally, I owe SARS a great debt: I had just started seeing the woman who I’d marry that fall, and we were delighted to be cooped up in my nice little apartment in Sanlitun, watching a whole bunch of American TV: X-Files, 24, and The West Wing were all shows I’ll forever associate with that period. And we conceived my daughter, who was born the following spring, during the summer of SARS, so we’re very grateful!

Kuora is a weekly column.