April 16, 2020


When SARS EndedThe viral spell broke, and Hong Kong seemed to wake from a fever dream. (Karl Taro Greenfeld, April 16, 2020, The New Yorker)

We didn't know it yet, but that week--the week of Leslie Cheung's death--was the point of maximum hysteria and fear. In early April, while we were betting on the number of new cases and wondering about the extent of the coverup, Hong Kong passed its inflection point, with the number of new infections sinking below that of cleared cases. As April turned to May, and warmer days commenced, we looked around and realized that we were still alive.

What had actually happened? In retrospect, it seems likely that several factors converged. We had all effectively self-quarantined (or, in the case of my wife and daughters, actually departed). Schools had been closed for more than a month. Everyone in the city had been wearing surgical masks, without exception; on television, even government officials appeared in scrubs and full protective gear.

The medical system had adapted, too. Prior to sars, some hospitals had become lax, relying on antibiotics for infection control instead of maintaining disinfection as a steady state. What worked against sars, I wrote later, in my book about the outbreak, "China Syndrome," were "Florence Nightingale-style proscriptions: protective layers of masks, goggles, gloves, galoshes, and gowns. Sealed wards. Quarantine. Ventilation. This was not Nobel Prize-winning medicine. Yet it was effective." Modern hospital systems aren't accustomed to swarms of critical respiratory cases. But Hong Kong's hospitals, after becoming overwhelmed, had adjusted.

At the time, it also seemed to us that the weather played a role. Hong Kong in April has an average temperature in the seventies, and by May it is in the eighties. And yet our containment efforts were so robust that the virus's inflection point came before any seasonal trends, if they existed, could show themselves in full.

The end of sars was accompanied by a curious combination of hope and fatigue. We had been living indoors, secluded, behind masks, for so long that at some point it had become normal--even boring. I can remember the first time I saw someone wearing a mask, at the start of the outbreak: I had been taking my three-year-old daughter for a walk around Victoria Peak, and she had pointed him out. But I can't remember when I first saw someone without one, or when I myself decided to leave mine at home. I suppose that, one day, I must have woken up, got dressed, reached for the N95 as usual, and then thought, Is this really necessary?

The government didn't tell us to go out--and, in any case, it couldn't have legislated away our fear. Instead, some internal calculation seemed to show that the benefits of living our lives newly outweighed the risks of catching sars. I know as I write this that it sounds ridiculous, but it felt as though the virus itself had grown weaker--as though it had been wounded. It seemed like a miasma had lifted from the city.

My family members came back from their exile. Restaurants reopened. The viral spell broke; Hong Kong seemed to wake from a fever dream. There were magical spring days when the sun flooded Victoria Harbor. We talked, in person. The virus had reduced everyone's life to a binary--you either had it or you didn't. Now, there seemed to be seven million different stories.

One day, I found myself sitting in a steamy chicken-and-rice place full of other customers. Oh, I thought. This is what life is.

Posted by at April 16, 2020 12:00 AM