Chang Ning is a nurse at the Beijing Friendship Hospital. Mother of a three-year-old boy, Ning was looking forward to a week-long family holiday during the May Day celebrations. But Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) did not let that happen. All doctors and nurses attending to SARS patients have been quarantined in an effort to halt the spread of the disease. Even during off-duty hours, Ning and her colleagues cannot leave the hospital.
Over 206 persons have already succumbed to SARS while more than 4,280 are infected in China. Beijing has been the hardest hit, reporting 103 deaths since the outbreak.
Chinese are responding to the epidemic sometimes with violent anger and at times with paranoia. Last month, news agencies reported that over 2,000 people torched a school building near Beijing earmarked as a SARS quarantine centre. Last week, enraged farmers attacked a government building in east China and beat up officials who had come to open a quarantine centre in the area.
SARS appears to have taken China hostage. For most Chinese doctors and nurses, life is restricted to the wards. In Ning's hospital, three nurses attend to over 50 SARS patients, wearing four layers of protective clothes and a four layered gauze mask with eye shields. Over 30,000 doctors and nurses in Beijing lead a similar lifestyle: they are vulnerable to infections and cannot see or meet their relatives or friends.
The epidemic has unleashed a new social order where people from a city with SARS cases, like Beijing, are boycotted. Ann Qi, an advertisement agent in Beijing, chose to take her eight-year-old daughter to her mother-in-law's house in Jinan, east China, where only one SARS case has been confirmed. "We were treated like untouchables there," narrates Qi. The neighborhood committee members followed them everywhere, insisting on taking their temperature everyday. "A neighbor even sprayed a disinfectant at the spot where I stood, right in front of me!" But she prefers this humiliation to the life of fear in Beijing.
"People are dying everyday," says Sun Anlin, an office worker in Beijing. Last month, her seven-year-old son's school closed, fearing spread of the infection. Within a week, almost all schools closed. "I make sure my son plays only with me and my husband. I take him out for a soccer break in a nearby park, but I see to it that he touches no fitness facilities there. We wear face masks in the lift and wash our hands with soap at least three times when we are back home," says Anlin. Her husband cycles to work instead of using a bus.
A mid-April telephone poll by the Social Survey Institute of China (SSIC) with 1,200 people, claimed that at least 79 per cent of the people in Beijing, 84 per cent in Guangzhou, 57 per cent in Huhhot (regional capital of Inner Mongolia), and 37 per cent in northwest China, live in fear of SARS. Causes of the panic vary from worries about insufficient medical facilities (46 per cent), alarm at the severity of the situation (38 per cent), to fear that the situation may worsen (26 per cent).
So far, no vaccine for the deadly virus has been developed. People's lives mostly hang on their immune system. This has driven many Chinese to become manic house-cleaners. Drug stores offer a variety of disinfectants for homes, and vitamins for immunity.
Panic buying has sent prices of essential commodities like vegetables, fruits and drinks soaring. Within three days, salt sales hit 7,247 tons in Beijing, equal to the volume of sales in 45 days.
To quell fears, local television networks arranged for daily talks with medical experts and sociologists. Once the government became more transparent about sharing information, people became less paranoid about SARS.
But most people are still grappling with the seclusion SARS has inflicted on them. "It is depressing to stay home most of the time. I do some exercise in the backyard," says 14-year-old Xiaoxiao, a secondary school student who is taking on-line audio classes from designated education websites. "But at least I can talk with friends on the phone or exchange short messages on the mobile and crack jokes, even in an emergency situation like this."