It is a fact of life in Taiwan that most bad weather blows over from the Chinese mainland. The only exception is the occasional summer typhoon, which can provide some small degree of meteorological revenge. The gong fei – Communist Bandits, an archaic term which is now used only in conjunction with a small, ironic smile – are responsible for cold air currents, the bad economy, worldwide de-recognition of the R.O.C., all complaints about national security, and electronics that break within three days of purchase. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that it is the P.R.C. that is to blame for the current SARS crisis.
For a long time this spring, it appeared that SARS would miraculously skip over Taiwan, leaving it as the last bastion of mask-free living in the Chinese speaking world, but what came late has now come with a vengeance. Taipei is in the process of closing down it’s third hospital due to outbreaks, a fact which provides some comfort to the general public (there is a sense that if you stay out of emergency rooms, you’re bound to come out of this all right) but should certainly worry the accident-prone. I, of course, can claim the dubious honor of surely being one of the clumsiest people tripping over this planet, but fortunately I seem to limit my injuries to bruising spectacularly in ways that generally do not require professional medical attention.
Of course, this is all very serious, and sometimes rather frightening – though I personally don’t find it as generically scary as fall 2001 in Washington – but there is an element of the ludicrous to the SARS scare that simply cannot be avoided. For example, McDonald’s “service with a smile” now includes a grinning associate lurking about the outside golden arches prepared to jam a thermometer in your ear in the name of preventing SARS from permeating the Big Mac. In my humble opinion, the temperature checks have recently gotten a little out of control. Beyond McDonald’s, places I’ve had my body temperature measured include: the airport, the library, the school computer center, the bank, my church, the post office, the police station, a mall, a book store, a clothes store, several restaurants, and a bar. You can be out running errands and get your temperature checked at each new stop. The last remaining place in Taipei you can actually enter with a low grade fever is 7-11, and I suspect this is only due to a shortage of personnel – I have long believed there to be at least one 7-11 for every four or five people in Taiwan, and one of them is already behind the counter, so there’s no way to add a second to check for fevers. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the fact that my temperature is different every place I go. Two temperature checks five minutes apart yesterday displayed a difference of two degrees. This suggests to me that the teenage associates at the Taiwan equivalent of the GAP did not have high quality thermometer training as a part of their New Job orientation sessions.
Actually, forget SARS for a moment, I have a much bigger problem: hypothermia. How I’ve managed to begin to freeze in the sub-tropical heat is a bit beyond me, but my temperature has ranged from an already unnaturally low 35 degrees Celsius, to an alarming 32.9 (that’s Fahrenheit 91.22) yesterday. Sensing that I really must get to the bottom of this, I politely inquired of my examiner if perhaps I wasn’t, in fact, already dead. She seemed to feel that the fact that the fancy new never-touch-your-body instant thermometers run a little low was a more likely explanation, but I felt rather unsettled all the same.
Beyond the vigilant thermometer patrol, another popular “SARS control” method is the donning of surgical masks in public places. Actually, I’d say that the percentage of people wearing masks on the street is only slightly up from the pre-SARS days when masks were intended to prevent one from breathing in the heavily polluted air, though naturally a few souls have taken things to extremes. The other day I waited to cross the street – bare faced and breathing in whatever happened to come my way – next to a man in a full military-ready gas mask. He had those giant air-filtering cylinders sticking out of either cheek and looked rather like some sort of mutant insect/man superhero from a Marvel comic. I suspect, though, that if he was actually Coming To Save The Day he would not have waited for the light to change. Naturally, I could not resist the urge to make small talk with a giant insect/man mutant, and commented to him on the recent weather, then asked if he thought it might rain? I couldn’t hear the response through the gas mask, though I do hope he left me feeling a tad, um, over-prepared for potential disaster.
Most people, however, settle for plain surgical masks, though there has been some color-coordinating among the more fashion conscious young women (pink has been especially popular). The other day I caught sight of my very first mask sporting a business logo (other than the name of the mask manufacturer); I admit, I’ve long seen the paper masks as an advertising opportunity and had been wondering why local businesses had not yet started to take advantage. All that blank space across everyone’s mouth and cheeks… Personally, I only have plain masks, so I’ve been thinking up slogans to write across the front. So far, I’ve come up with, “SARS sucks!”, “Free Taiwan,” and “My best friend went to China and all I got was this lousy mask.”
Actually, for all the damage SARS has done to the business prospects of local travel agencies and airlines (the number of “get away from SARS” tour packages being offered has dwindled as more and more neighboring countries have implemented mandatory ten-day quarantines for passengers arriving from Taiwan), some industries can’t help but view the disease as a godsend. Products and shops that have used SARS as an advertising hook in Taipei so far include: mask suppliers (of course), hand soap, vitamins, tissues, bleach, household cleaners, exercise equipment, mattresses, a car wash (fight SARS and get your car’s interior sanitized for only NT $50!), health food stores, hot pot restaurants (eating spicy hot pot is commonly accepted as a means of increasing your SARS resistance), and Korean restaurants (there is no SARS in Korea, which the Koreans attribute to daily consumption of Kimchi, or spicy pickled cabbage). (I like Kimchi, but what I’d really like to hear is that new research has found Pringles or maybe ice cream to be especially effective in preventing SARS.) My latest favorite ad reads: “SARS won’t be like the 14th century European Bubonic Plague…. if you protect your health and visit our Spa. Services start at NT $157!”
Most of these products have at least a tenuous connection to one’s health and disease resistance, but I’m just waiting to see “Flee SARS in a new Mitsubishi!” or “Take a break from SARS and have a Budweiser” ads. (Actually, I’m not sure if there is a SARS connection, but recently the convenience stores have all started offering special “buy five, get one free” deals on cans of beer. I had always thought of this as a six-pack, not a special bargain, but what do I know?) At the moment, SARS sells products more effectively than any boy band in Asia, so I think the few companies that have been able to resist will soon succumb.
Of course, like any crisis, SARS has also meant Great Things for the local media. Every television news channel has its own SARS logo and case-tracking graphics. In the newspapers, close to every article has a SARS tie-in – including the entertainment section (“popular singer Wang Lihong wears a mask and gloves to greet his fans, signs autographs and notes of encouragement for the nurses quarantined at Heping Hospital”). Some days there haven’t been enough solid developments, so the articles turn to speculation. “National Taiwan University Professor Has Fever!” screamed one headline; reading on, I discovered that he had no history of exposure to SARS, no other symptoms of SARS, but had recently come down with a cold One local TV station interviewed a man who suspected himself of having SARS, and also his doctor, who explained that he had no symptoms, but a long history of hypochondria. This is news? Of course, it is not only the media that is guilty of such things; check out the logo developed by the Taiwan Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov.tw). My school, the National Chengchi University, also presented me with a couple of glossy, color, wallet-size cards with little blanks to record my body temperature each day, complete with the school anti-SARS logo. I showed them to two Taiwanese friends, both of whom acknowledged that they were indeed very pretty and will make great souvenirs.
The odds of coming down with SARS in Taipei these days are actually pretty slim, whatever the recent news coverage might suggest to you. Keep in mind that not every new case in Taiwan is in Taipei – my city has 148 cases now; the rest are spread around the island. My opinion is that as long as the schools, shops, and noodle stands remain open, I see no reason to join in the general mass exodus of students and ex-pats from Taiwan.
Copyright 2003 by Meredith Oyen