Lessons From SARS: How to Deal With the Coronavirus — and Our New Normal
What I learned about outbreaks from surviving a pandemic
At the end of March 2003, I was sitting on the sofa of a borrowed studio apartment in Hong Kong, wondering if I was going to die.
It was the spring of SARS. The outbreak, which had originated in late 2002 across the border in the neighboring Chinese province of Guangdong, had been growing throughout the month. In Hong Kong, where I had been working as a reporter for TIME magazine for nearly two years, there had been a burst of cases at one of the city’s main hospitals. There were smaller outbreaks in cities like Singapore, Taipei, Beijing, and Toronto. By the middle of the month, the World Health Organization (WHO) had issued a heightened global health alert over the respiratory illness, which didn’t yet have an official name. Worst of all, on March 30 an explosive outbreak in Hong Kong’s Amoy Gardens apartment complex sickened more than 200 people and fueled fears that the SARS virus — which up until then had mostly spread in health care settings — was now active in the community. And if the SARS virus could spread easily in public through the air like the flu, what could stop it? Which is how I found myself on that couch, worrying I was going to die in Hong Kong.
An outbreak looks and feels very differently as it is unfolding than it does in hindsight, when the cases have been closed and the virus contained.
Looking back 17 years later, I can see those fears for what they were: ridiculous. The Amoy Gardens outbreak, which marked the high point of SARS hysteria, turned out to be the result of a fluky set of epidemiological coincidences that hinged on the apartment complex’s faulty plumbing system. There was never again a large-scale community outbreak of SARS on that scale. A couple of weeks later international scientists managed to isolate and identify the pathogen that was causing SARS, and I found myself at Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital, staring through an electron microscope at the spiky coronavirus that was the cause of all this…