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Life in the Time of SARS

May 2003,

· Sitting with Mama
· Maria
· Nine Crossings
· Mama and Her

· Fallopian Chron IV
· Why I Toast, I
· Why I Toast, II
· Why I Toast, III
· Scooter/Dot-Com
· Fallopian Chron II
· Fallopian Chron III
· Strange Bedfellow
· Almost Equal
· A Difficult Day
· Phantom Lover:
    Ode to
    Leslie Cheung

· I Am Salad
· Fallopian Chron I
· Taiwanglish
· Childhood's End
· Psychic Friends
· Life in the
    Time of SARS

· Waiting for
      the Goddess

· Roswell My Eye
· Catisfaction
· My Laramie Project
· Stopping on the
    Street for
    Coltrane: A Real
    Latter Day Saint

· Whither Moocat?
· Happy Palindrome!
· Happy Tiger
· Tourist for a Day
· Geography
    as Destiny

· "Bastards"
· Watching the
    Pentagon Burn

· Communing with

· Milk
· Infinity
· Emailing the Dead
· Broken Water
· Sand Shark
· Grandma Said
· Golden Days
· Americat
· Moe Howard on the
Death of His Brother,

· Flashpoems
· Minyan
· Inside Scoop
· Nativity
· I Ask My Mother
To Sing

· Absence of Colours
· Island Logic
· Peepshow Kleenex
· Allen Ginsberg
Forgives Ezra Pound
on Behalf of the Jews

· Lacing Your Shoes:
Haiku & the Everyday

· Four Haiku
· Smoking Haiku
· Geary & Jones,
Monday, 8:23 a.m.

· The Keeper
· december 13, 2001
· Memento Mori
· Football's Birthday
· The Edward Gorey

· Arrival
· Victim o'

· The Origin of
Teeth and Bones

· Questions for
Martins Ferry,

· This Is Just
To Tell You

· Not-Cat (& whatnot)
· To My Unmet Wife

· Englishhua
· Dave for Pope
· Papa Loves Mambo
· A Culture Report

· The Louisiana
A Special Radio X
Historical Docudrama

· Krawkawkaw Gives
a Little

· Meet Dr. Klaww
· Letters to Dr. Klaww
· Letter from the
Hall of Justice

· An Invitation
to be Keynote

· More

All Things

· Gajandra Meets
    the Scatoman

· Gajandra and
    the Curse of the
    Six Monkeys

· Gajandra and the
    Eating Lesson

· A Moment of

· Gajandra and the
    Great Rumble

· Gajandra and the
    Problem with

· Mohamed Tahdaini
· John Guillory
· Berkeley Pier
· Bruce Dene
· Death of The Bayou
· Taiwan Food Vendors
· John Freeman
· Robin Liu
· Hector
· Dave's Corner
· Zuni Kachinas

· Mainland Murmurs
· Next to Heaven
  · Episode #8

  · Episode #16
· Crosswords Brunch


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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.

SARS mask boy SARS mask lady SARS mask girl SARS mask old lady SARS mask old man SARS mask girl SARS mask boy

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.

Intially, the occasional pedestrian wearing a surgical mask on the street was a curiosity. Then, the numbers grew to where wearing a face mask seemed quite fashionable. Then the Taipei subway system (MRT) began taking the temperature of all travelers not wearing a face mask. Most recently, all MRT riders are required to wear a face mask. This, while the Taiwan Department of Health takes out half-page ads in the newspapers stating that "According to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence that a person without symptoms may infect others with SARS.... Wearing a surgical mask on the street is not necessary and is not recommended by the Department of Health of by any other health authority in the world."

SARS Brochure
One of Very Many
A week or so after the MRT requirement, the face mask requirement makes its way to the Taiwan Railway Administration, which controls the commuter rail that I must take three times a week. The masks condense exhaled air onto one's lips and nose. If you wear glasses, they fog up. Unless one has minty-fresh breath all day, everyday, the experience is notably less than pleasant. There are reports of SARS-mask profiteering and complications at the post office over bureaucratic regulations regarding the import of medical supplies. Then, in the same newspaper a few days later, I read an article quoting medical experts as saying that the wearing of masks may actually increase the danger of getting sick, inasmuch as the masks trap warm moisture around the nose and mouth and thus provide a hospitable environment for bacteria and the like.

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.

SARS posters

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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