When did SARS happen? 2003? 2004? Seems like it was 2004, but I'm not sure.
Whenever SARS happened, back then I was living in Seattle with my wife and older daughter. I was in graduate school, and my wife was working in a hotel. It was a pleasant enough two years.
One morning back then we drove to the Great Wall Mall. It was one of those things we did when we missed Chinese food or Chinese people. The Great Wall Mall is, as you might have already guessed, an Asian-themed shopping mall south of Seattle. It isn't big compared to the nearby Southcenter Mall, but it contains a large Asian supermarket and several restaurants.
Our trip to the Great Wall Mall happened in the middle of the SARS epidemic. SARS was all over the news, and a lot of people in that part of the country were trying to avoid Asian people because of it. They wouldn't have put it in such terms of course, but that's exactly what they were doing. It didn't matter what part of of Asia the Asian people were from; it didn't matter how long they'd been in the States. SARS was on everyone's mind, and as a result Asian businesses in the States suffered.
This became evident as we walked into the Great Wall Mall that day. The place was practically deserted. Nearby Southcenter was teeming with shoppers, but the Great Wall Mall, normally just as busy, was almost empty. Oh well, we thought, let's buy our groceries and go home.
Fast forward 16 years or so to 2020, and now everyone's talking about the coronavirus (covid-19). It's literally impossible to avoid discussions and news items on this topic, and these discussions and news items range from the wildest sort of conjecture to more fact-based approaches that are easily ignored. For example, I sat through a three hour meeting yesterday, and you can bet that what we talked about - to the exclusion of almost everything else - was the coronavirus. Hand washing, face masks, the taking of temperatures - it was all discussed (and discussed again) to the point of exhaustion.
When I first heard about the coronavirus we were up in Nantou 南投, just starting our winter vacation. We were ten minutes down the road from Ching Jing Farm 清境農場, and even there you could feel the unease. "What is it?" "How do you catch it?" "What should we do?" Way, WAY up in the mountains, and even people there were worried. Not everyone of course, but some.
After spending a few days in Nantou we went to my mother-in-law's house in Kaohsiung 高雄 for the Chinese New Year holiday. In case you don't have Chinese relatives or in-laws, Chinese New Year usually involves spending a lot of time indoors with extended family members. Needless to say, the TV news was on in my mother-in-law's apartment almost 24/7, and the barrage of coronavirus-related stories was unrelenting. People weren't quite in a panic yet, but you could feel it waiting in the wings.
Once Chinese New Year ended we drove back to Taitung 台東. No panic here yet. No hysteria. But I did go back to Kaohsiung a second time with my older daughter, and that was super weird. Everyone on the MRT was wearing face masks. Restaurants were empty. The FE 21, normally one of the busiest places in Kaohsiung, was like a ghost town. You could tell that the coronavirus was on everyone's mind.
Two weeks later, and my school has cancelled a lot of the group activities scheduled for this semester. Some of the English teachers, perhaps out of a certain self-interest, are also calling for the cancellation of the County English competition. Taiwan is requiring a 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving from South Korea. The Philippines attempted - and then lifted - a similar quarantine on travelers from Taiwan. It's all very confusing, and very worrying to most people.
And what about the Great Wall Mall? Does it stand as empty now as it did in 2004? Are people in Seattle avoiding Asians, having associated them with the dread coronavirus? I'm sure that some of them are, and it's definitely not right, but I can't judge them too harshly for it. It wouldn't be any different if some Taiwanese guy's wife announced - in the middle of a local market - that she was from Wuhan 武漢. Can you imagine the tension that would create? Can you imagine how much personal space she'd be given?
Hopefully the hysteria will abate soon. Perhaps a vaccine will appear. Perhaps one already has. I'm not sure about the vaccine because I'm avoiding the news right now. I've already had weeks of hearing about the coronavirus, and I need a break.
We always need to ask ourselves if we're taking proper precautions or if we're panicking. Often it's hard to tell. No one wants to catch a potentially fatal virus, but then again how many people die in traffic accidents each day? How many people die from other causes? In terms of ways you could die, the coronavirus is (at least at the time of writing) pretty low on the list, and even if it was more of a threat none of us are going to live forever. We try to be safe, but the world is full of dangers.
And while we're exploring this topic, how's your face mask supply? Do you have enough? Are you avoiding public places? Are you washing your hands? Have you been to any shopping malls recently? Have you been staying indoors more?
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