Chinese health workers in Beichuan in 2008, tasked with recovering bodies and disinfecting cities flattened by the earthquake in Sichuan. (photo by William Foreman)
The years I spent living and working in China taught me that public health issues are extremely important and can have a huge impact on our lives. As an Associated Press journalist based in greater China for 10 years, I covered several health-related stories. The biggest ones included the threat of bird flu and the effort to control the spread of disease in the aftermath of the massive Sichuan earthquake, which killed about 70,000 people in 2008.
But my most memorable experience was with SARS in 2003. I was based in Taiwan at the time and was sent to Beijing to fill in for a colleague who was away on a special assignment to cover the war in Iraq. When I arrived in Beijing, all was calm because the government had yet to acknowledge that SARS was a growing problem in the capital. An airport taxi driver who drove me to my hotel said, “Everything is OK here. The only problem is that the media keep talking about SARS in other places and scaring people.”
But a couple days later, the SARS crisis finally erupted in Beijing: the virus raging out of control in the hospitals. The government launched a massive campaign, marshaling all the major forces – the military, media, Communist Party and public – to battle SARS in Beijing. It was a unique experience to see a full-blown Chinese campaign, much like the ones during the Maoist era.
Within a day, the hotel I was staying in emptied out as all the business travelers and tourists fled Beijing. I might have been the only customer left in the place. Most of the hotel workers were sent home, and most of the facilities were closed: the bar, breakfast buffet, gift shop, fitness center, coffee shop. In the morning, a cleaning lady waited outside my door when I left for work. “Can I clean your room now?” she would ask. I figured she got to go home after my room was done.
My colleagues and I constantly worried about our health. Any cough, sniffle or sore throat filled us with a sense of doom. Still, we did our jobs, venturing out into the public each day to cover the news. I remember going to a packed supermarket to do a story about people hoarding food. I also spent a lot of time hanging out at train stations and airports, reporting about the mass exodus of people leaving the city.
We often debated whether it was more dangerous to be in Iraq or Beijing. During one such discussion, a Chinese news assistants chipped in: “Beijing is more dangerous. You can be surrounded by assassins and not know it! The SARS virus is everywhere!”
I went on to cover many other stories about terror attacks, factory riots, the Olympics and the booming Chinese economy. But SARS still ranks high on my list of most memorable and important stories.