Letter from SARSland

Approaching Zero?

by Bill Barron

Hong Kong 19/5/03

The numbers

After a small blip (and associated anxiety) last week the number of new SARS cases has continued its gradual fall (3 yesterday).  Recoveries stand at 1,203 — 4 ½ times the number of current cases (263). Unfortunately, health-care workers continue to represent a high fraction of new infections. The death toll is about 17% (deaths divided by deaths plus recoveries). And after a moderate surge in the number of clusters of the outbreak last week it is now once again down (though in somewhat different areas).  In other words, new cases continue to breakout and to breakout in places not immediately adjacent to known areas of infection.  But the overall number of infections continues to fall (from about 40/day when first reported in mid March to its peak of 80/day in late March and now to under 10/day since early May.


Overall, people and the medical community seem torn between thinking we can put SARS behind us and realizing that another flare-up is possible.  People are now being advised to wear masks only in crowded places (especially indoors) but a planned city-wide public ‘unmasking’ day was called off (at least for now).  At the height of the fears perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 of people wore masks on the streets, at work, etc.  Now that percentage seems to be well under 1/10 and perhaps much lower.

In Saturday (9am-2pm) I participated in a community workshop on proposals to make Hong Kong’s shorelines more accessible (the government seems to see the shoreline primarily as a cheap place to build roads or put in waterborne services (e.g., fresh food and goods delivery to Hong Kong island), or things like prisons.  Amenities in what should be one of the world’s greatest harbors seem to be an afterthought at best).   The workshop had about 50 people – about half of whom were Chinese.[1]  There was a box of masks on the registration table in case anyone wanted one but no one in the room wore a mask that day. Later in the afternoon I went to the supermarket – it was crowded and there were enough masks to remind me that it’s not entirely life as normal.


[1] In my early days in HK (early 1990s) many if not most things relating to the environment tended to be largely ex-pat lead.  That’s still true to some extent, but over time the percentage of Chinese in such activities has greatly increased as has their level of active participation. Likewise, largely Chinese initiatives on the environment are now more common.  Language tends to be a dividing issue.  For the most part only the local middle and upper classes tend to be fully comfortable with English while ‘many tonal’ Guangdongwah presents a challenge that few Westerners in HK manage to fully meet. Cantonese has either 7 or 9 tones depending on which authority one believes and on top of that is largely monosyllabic (hence tone dictates meaning). Westerners who can sing or play musical instruments tend to do much better than the rest of us.

[4 January 2018 – Rest in peace, Bill]