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Runima Borah Tandon | June 11, 2003 13:35 IST
In February, I was invited to China as a foreign expert. Every year thousands like me get to educate and interact with the Chinese academicians there, especially students.
I reached China in early March. Things went on smoothly for a month. Then I began to be bombarded by emails from friends and relatives.
"I just read this terrible article on SARS in China in the New York Times," my sister-in-law from America wrote. "Please take measures to protect yourself."
Another email, from my Korean friend, read, "Please go back to India immediately. Don't believe the Chinese government because they always hide facts."
Of course, I did not take them seriously. I knew SARS was serious in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Guangdong province. I was living in Qinhuangdao, four hours from Beijing, far away from the province, so nothing could happen to me!
But I was too naļve to believe everything was fine. I remember the day I was called in to a meeting with the dean and the person handling foreign office matters in the university I was engaged at. They handed me a letter and said if I wished to go back I could do so. They would not be responsible if I got SARS. And if I wanted to stay, I had to give in writing I was willing to work, despite the threat of SARS.
They gave me a thermometer, a special soap and a bottle of disinfectant to spray in my room. The seriousness of the whole thing began to dawn on me. My students were stopped from coming to see me as some of them had returned to the campus from Beijing that week.
I felt isolated and lonely. They kept saying it was for my own good and they didn't want to take any chances.
After a week, the campus was sealed off completely. No one could come in or go out. Spouses who worked outside had to make alternative living arrangements. Guards were posted at the gates to ensure no one got in.
No one broke the rules. "I think it's right for the president of the university to take such a decision," said Zhang Yanlian, one of my colleagues. "It's good for us to be in. Otherwise it's very easy for us to get infected."
I was told the president of another university was asked to resign because five students had contracted SARS.
It was almost three weeks before my students could visit my room. Of course, it was another matter I met them everyday during my lectures.
What struck me most was the tremendous grace under pressure the Chinese exhibited. They are not a race to be beaten easily.
People came out of their homes to exercise, to keep themselves fit. You saw them running, practicing tai chi, playing badminton, basketball, table tennis, football and volleyball. Everyone tried to maintain a happy disposition, for they believe if your spirits are low, so will your immune system be.
In Beijing, the Chinese media was pretty active, though a little one-sided. You saw 'reassuring' faces of doctors and nurses waving at the camera with masks on (as if things were not that serious!) and Chinese leaders shaking hands with doctors. That left you wondering what the other side of the story is -- the patients and their respective families. You saw only passing shots of them.
Obviously, a lot of questions have been playing on everyone's mind after SARS. Will it change the image of China? Will it impact the tourism industry? How will they do their damage control?
"I think it's really a big blow to the Chinese economy because most people have to stay at one place. But I believe this is temporary, we can overcome this difficulty," said Ms Zhang Yanlian. "If we can overcome the disease, it is good evidence we can overcome a disaster."
"It's definitely going to affect tourism in China," said Mr Tang Shengling, president of Hebei Normal University of Science and Technology. "This loss is not because of the defects of the economic system but because of the sudden disease.
"About the image of China, we've read articles that Chinese people's living habits, maybe there was something related with SARS. On the other hand, I see this as a good thing, because of SARS, the Chinese people and the Chinese government can increase their awareness about living conditions and hygiene. We can pay more attention to it and take action about this."
Now everything has been made available at the campus at controlled prices. Still, there is an increasing urge to go out. Oh, to be free from this fortress!
There is news the gates will open for two days shortly...
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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