Riding Out SARS in Beijing

by Ginny Stibbs Anami '66

Beijing broke out into celebrations of relief when the World Health Organization took the city off its advisory list [June 2003]. I, too, shared in this relief, having been here throughout this epidemic. These three months have had moments of nervousness as well as unusual experiences.

As the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to China, it would have been unseemly to run. So I bonded by phone with all my Chinese friends as we sat out the unknown disease that was breaking out in all corners of the capital. Who are the sick and where are they? How is it transmitted? What are the methods for curing it?-these were all unsettling questions at the beginning. The rumours didn’t help. When it was announced that 50% of patients had no idea how they contracted this illness, people were swept off the streets. Empty. And when the statistics finally began to be openly released, most of the Beijing sick were in my district. So I stayed within the walls of my compound.

But not for long. I donned “SARS wear” for necessary shopping: two face masks, hat, dangling scarf, long sleeves, and gloves. I was costumed as something between a Southern lady at a garden party and an Afghan refugee. Fortunately, I’ve kept my hand-me-down “glove drawer” so I could color-coordinate. “Oh, Ginny, just where did you get those fuchsia-colored gloves?” friends asked. For greetings, we bowed or curtsied, no more cheek-kissing among diplomats.

On any given day as I moved about the city, guards might check my temperature four or five times. Other places just sprayed you with disinfectant. In fact, the whole city was disinfected daily by troops of workers.

On the day before the shocking official announcement of Beijing’s widespread SARS, I was exploring a stone village. It seemed perfectly all right to be outside. A journalist accompanying me proclaimed in a full-page article that I was the “sunlight in the face of SARS.” But the April 20 statement made everybody freeze. More than 1,275 cases of Feidian (SARS) were announced. The following week, all villages of Beijing shut themselves in. No city person was welcome. No “sunlight” was needed.

Driving outside of the city a few days later, I found all side roads blocked and villages cordoned off. Beijing’s rural areas panicked, and fear galvanized these peasants into a gut reaction to save themselves from this peril. For them the SARS slogan, “come together with one heart,” had a different meaning. The heart is their village.

At village entrances serious guards stood sentinel by banners stating “checking point to protect against SARS.” But this was not the nonchalant atmosphere of usual political movements. The villagers were scared and protecting their villages to the utmost degree. They yelled, “Get out of here,” and “Don’t stop your car!” while loud speakers blasted telling people to stay inside.

One village by a river had two temples, one to protect from floods and the other to protect the highway. But today they wanted a different kind of protection-they didn’t want the epidemic anywhere near them. It was desolate except for the guardians with their red armbands. Fear was so very real in their faces. One group of women formed a posse telling anyone who stopped by the road to move along. Don’t even try to come close, they screamed. Down by the river, a man was armed with a stick. He made a motion to drive us away with his weapon. We were outcasts.

As I walked past in my head-to-toe cover-up, peasants in fields more than 15 meters away shielded their faces. Anyone not from their village was a suspect virus carrier. I felt I was looking at the hysteria of the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. In their justifiable tenacity in regards to this disease, they controlled access to the rivers and mountains, valleys, and plains. It made me appreciate all the more the usual hospitality of Beijing’s villagers.

Despite the horrible sickness and deaths, there were some upsides to this awful predicament. Families came closer together. The rush for riches was put on hold. A cleaning frenzy hit every alley and farmhouse. For me it was also a chance to visit and photograph sites that are usually clogged with tourists. I was the only person walking in the Palace gardens or around the Ming tombs. A ticket taker was also amazed, saying, “You sure have nice gloves!”