Life behind the mask: SARS in Hong Kong

The Tall family made a long-awaited trip to the USA last month, mostly to introduce Baby Tall to her American grandparents. Among the usual joys of visiting the homeland, such as reminding oneself why American food makes people fat, it was very fine escaping temporarily from the SARS hysteria that's gripped Hong Kong for the past couple of months. Just going out on the street without girding one's countenance with a surgical mask is a remarkably pleasant experience when it's been a month since you've had it.

So, trip good, but flights bad. It turns out Baby Tall is not a good airplane sleeper (I'll spare you the details) so the Parents Tall returned to Hong Kong thoroughly exhausted. In this weakened state, both of us contracted good old-fashioned chest colds. Except that these days in Hong Kong there's nothing so simple these days.

I sailed through the mandatory temperature check at the airport immigration counter, but then started coughing almost immediately. This cough was rich, deep and productive, emanating from my chestal bronchi. Strangely, throughout the whole two weeks of my affliction, I never coughed at night. It was strictly a daytime cough, with special emphasis during public appearances.

This wasn't good, but it was instructive.

If looks could kill, I'd've been forcibly decomposed into finely-textured dirt by now. It is remarkable how much fear and loathing can be conveyed by eyes above surgical masks. My coughing cleared spaces around me on the crowded MTR big enough to park cars. It sent people springing from the seat next to me on the bus. It plowed a wake through crowds on the sidewalk without me touching a soul. I guess I could have just called in sick for a couple of weeks and camped out at home, but the problem was, I really wasn't very sick. No fever, no other significant symptoms, no reason I couldn't work.

And I can't blame anyone. I've been pretty jumpy myself. On the plane on the way over to the states last month -- well before I caught my cold, I might add -- there was a gentleman a couple of rows behind the Talls who was merrily coughing and hacking away, without a surgical mask, and seemingly without any restraint at all. I was ready to go back and forcibly encase his head in one of those plastic bags the flight attendants use to collect your earphones. Internally, I justified this attitude by appealing to the need to protect the vulnerable Baby Tall (even though young children are by far the least affected by SARS), but clearly there was an element of self-interest there, too.

So the SARS crisis has not been Hong Kong's -- nor my own -- finest moment. It's brought out just enough irrationality in this ultra-modern society to remind us what it must have been like in the middle ages to arrive at the gates of a pristine village with swollen glands and an itchy pet rat. We want to believe we are fully enlightened, but we're clearly not above hearing a cough, and immediately thinking: unclean.