SARS: will it change our lives?

Now that, God willing, the SARS crisis is coming to an end in Hong Kong, we can take a step back and look at the effects it's had on day-to-day life here. It's too early to say that Hong Kong life will be seriously affected, but it's safe to assume that at least a few things won't return to their pre-SARS state.

First, let's take a look at the bright side. The day of the socially-tolerated hack-and-spit may be over. Hong Kong people now take flying phlegm seriously, and the sanctions against launching it are now far more formidable. This can only be a good thing. It's even possible, longshot though it may be, that the government's increasingly frantic and amusing efforts to promote civic cleanliness will have some carryover effect once this crisis passes.

Another trend I hope continues is Hong Kong people's new-found yen for fresh, open air. The SARS crisis has perhaps hastened many downtown bars and restaurants' efforts to provide al fresco seating options, which until recently barely existed. Now they're rapidly becoming commonplace. Another manifestation of this fresh-air-philia was a sudden spike in people getting out to places like Sai Kung over the recent holidays. As much as I enjoy having Hong Kong's country parks nearly to myself when I go hiking, a greater appreciation amongst Hong Kong's population for its considerable natural beauty can't be a bad thing.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of SARS may be far more extensive and lasting.

One thing Hong Kongers have never been noted for is putting on a pleasant public face. There's a lot of rudeness, but I worry that SARS has transformed many Hong Kong people's perceptions of a random stranger from 'speed bump impeding my progress into this MTR carriage' to 'potentially deadly virus vector to be shunned at all costs'. As I documented elsewhere, this can lead to even more unfriendly public behavior, although I suppose it does cut down on people running right into you.

Another worry is that Hong Kong people will become even more, well, wussy. I don't think I was the only one to notice that there's something unseemly about young Hong Kong men in pastel-pink surgical masks using tissues to grasp doorknobs.

A related trend has been supposedly sophisticated Hong Kong people reverting to worship of a peculiar talisman, i.e. The Mask. Given all the conflicting information about their efficacy we received -- and are still receiving -- from the HK Government, the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control in the US, etc., etc., it's no wonder people were confused, but 'putting on the mask' became more than an act of prudence. It became ritualistic, to the point of absurdity. Case in point: the Talls did a little shopping at Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong recently. Spotted there: at least three infants in the 3-5 month-old range wearing little tiny face masks. Did their parents really think this would help, with those baby hands clawing away at the masks, then spreading germs to every orifice the mites can reach?

Next, it's clear that SARS dealt a body blow to Hong Kong's already-feeble pop culture. The apotheosis of the SARS crisis was that 'We Shall Overcome' song that's been pounding Hong Kongers into submission since last month. Not only is it a strong candidate for the worst song in the history of recorded sounds, and not only does its 'We Are The World! Get me Bob Geldof now!!' approach seem about 20 years out of date, the sentiments it's expressing are pretty stupid. We aren't really going to 'overcome' SARS by wearing facemasks and wielding bleach-soaked mops. Either it'll continue to be a serious threat, but at a low risk level, like the chance of getting malaria when you go to Thailand; or it'll weaken as it mutates, and fall back into the ranks of nasty cold, flu, and other viruses that already roam the earth freely.

This trend of cultural degradation is clearly set to continue in the billion-dollar 'End of SARS' party the government's now planning. Invited guests include Bill Clinton, the Rolling Stones, and Ricky Martin. Great. If they all end up dancing on stage together, then a plague will really be visited upon us!

Perhaps most seriously, the SARS crisis has deepened a worrying trend: the expectation amongst Hong Kong people that 'the Government should take care of it'. Granted, there were public health measures that could, and should, have been taken, but this feeling goes deeper. There's an absurd sense growing here that life should proceed utterly free of risk, whether real or perceived. This deeply destructive sentiment is also increasingly prevalent in many western countries, especially, it seems to me, in the UK (for many articles on this general topic, see Spiked online magazine).

Finally, SARS has become boring. Even I can't stop writing about it!