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Life in the Time of SARS
We were untouched at first. Taiwan safely sat by for months while China and Hong Kong struggled with containing the mysterious virus. Then Singapore got hit, Vietnam, even Canada. But not Taiwan.
Then, news of a possible case from a traveler from China. And another. And more. And suddenly a large Taipei hospital, Ho Ping ["Peace"] hospital is quarantined because of its inability to control the spread of the potentially deadly disease from SARS patients to medical staff and other patients. No one is supposedly allowed to enter or leave the hospital for two weeks. But this is Taiwan, where everyone routinely ignores laws intended to ensure public safety, like traffic laws. Upon hearing the news of the quarantine, some staff sneak out through first-floor windows. Hospital staff stage a protest, asking caustically, "Why don't You Just Euthanize Us?" Later, as the disease continues its spread, and ineffective measures are taken to contain it, it is reported that 20 percent of "home-quarantined" cases violate their quarantine.
For a while every place was sold out of masks. Then independent vendors sprouted up everywhere with a variety of masks to choose from. A few weeks ago I was mildly surprised to have my temperature taken by employees of Warner Village megaplex before being allowed into the theater to view 'X-men 2'. Now it is routine to have your temperature taken 6, 8, sometimes 10 times a day, depending on how much you get out. Uncomplaining, we stand quietly as strangers glide plastic thermometers across our foreheads or insert strange instruments in our ears. Yesterday, in addition to having my temperature taken, I was required to have my hands sprayed with some kind of evaporating solution before being granted entry to an electronics store.
One might take heart in all these efforts, except that with every passing day the news comes: "Record Number of New SARS Cases Reported in Taiwan." My supervisor calls me and asks me to be prepared to supply a host of emergency contact information, should the company have to resort to extreme measures. Apparently, the notion of entirely "shutting down the country" for 10 days is being discussed in the government. Bushibans (extra-curricular "cram schools" such as the one I work at) would definitely be in the long list of institutions required to shut their doors. In which case, I would be required to teach English by phone, on an individual, student-by-student basis, at three-quarters pay.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 21, 2003 -- We are now required to teach while wearing masks at my main teaching branch, and all students are required to wear surgical masks while in the school. Even before SARS, you could barely hear half the kids even without masks. The masks further muffle their tiny voices. Now, they've opened the windows (with the air-con going) to provide ventilation. Thanks to Taiwan's noisy traffic and frequent, obnoxious sound trucks, the outside noise in the classrooms closest to the street is literally circuslike.
Even with this, and the arrival-and-departure temperature taking, the entire epidemic seems almost imaginary -- a barely comprehensible media event when viewed entirely in Chinese by a non-Chinese-speaker: Do I know anyone who has contracted SARS? No. Do I know anyone who knows anyone who has? No. I taught three classes today, for a total of 6 hours. The moisture build-up in the several masks I wore was almost intolerable. I yelled at the kids mercilessly, to the extent that one my kindest Chinese teaching partners after class took me aside and asked, "Are you alright?"
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