Body temperature: Normal (based on hand-on-forehead check).
Breathing: Short (caused by climbing 12 flights of stairs to avoid enclosed space of elevator).
Cough: Occasional (induced by Beijing pollution but vigilantly suppressed in elevators with strangers).
There are moments in a Beijinger’s day when you are reminded that there are many likelier ways to die in China’s capital than by contracting SARS. For me, that moment occurred around 5:30 this afternoon, when, while stopped in the far right lane of a six-lane road, my cabdriver suddenly decided to gun his wheezing go-cart of a cab and cross six lanes of oncoming traffic to make a U-turn into the northbound lane.
I shut my eyes, bracing for the inevitable impact, but my cabbie gave an exhilarated chuckle as we settled safely into our lane. “I didn’t even see the cop over there until it was too late, but who cares, he wouldn’t have pulled me over anyway!”
“Why?” I asked to be polite, though I already knew the answer.
“The cops don’t want to ticket us anymore because they’re afraid we’ll give them SARS.” Like most of the cabbies still plying Beijing’s streets, my driver wasn’t wearing a mask. “SARS is not as scary as everyone says it is,” he told me. (No, Beijing cabbies are much scarier.) In a city where most drivers consider red lights and turn signals strictly optional, you are more likely to be hit by a moving vehicle than by a coronavirus. The way I see it, you risk much more getting into a car here than you do going outside without a mask.
Since the American media started reporting about SARS, I’ve gotten plenty of e-mails from friends and family asking how I am—and urging me to wear a mask. Call me foolish, but I’m with the cabbie on this one: SARS ain’t that scary.
Yes, I know, the rate of infection continues to increase. Yes, I heard about that scary case in Hong Kong where residents of an entire apartment building got infected because one SARS victim used the loo while visiting his brother. Yes, I spotted three or four men spitting on public streets today, despite the new hefty fine ($6 American). And yes, I still inch away when someone sneezes or coughs in my presence.
But now that the government has decided to “come clean” about the actual numbers and cranked up its formidable propaganda apparatus to enlist the “masses” in the fight against SARS, the nonstop coverage of the war on Iraq has been crowded out by nonstop coverage of the war on SARS—call-in talk shows featuring medical experts, patriotic montages of the heroic SARS doctors and nurses toiling on the front lines, helpful programming on proper hand-washing techniques and tips for choosing effective facemasks—I actually feel safer than I did just two weeks ago when only my fellow expats, those of us addicted to various news Web sites, seemed to know that the vicious SARS bug was creeping into the capital.
Two weeks ago, I wore a mask whenever I rode the subway because who knew which coughing and sneezing passenger might unwittingly be infecting me with atypical pneumonia. But now that everyone else is wearing a mask, I’ve taken mine off. I guess you could call me a mask “free-rider.”
Besides, there aren’t any crowded places left in Beijing. The media hysteria seems to have scared everyone into their homes or driven them out of the city. In the year and a half I’ve lived here—I moved from Washington, D.C., to study Chinese and learn more about the culture of my ancestors—Beijing has never been this deserted. On a sunny, temperate weekend afternoon, Wangfujing (downtown Beijing’s main shopping street) is usually crowded with foreign and domestic tourists and window-shopping Beijingers. Yesterday, my fiance Josh and I counted only a handful of masked pedestrians, many of them idle department store clerks taking extra-long lunch breaks. And Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, the Avenue of Eternal Peace—usually a congested mess of honking, bumper-to-bumper traffic—was actually peaceful.
This morning, I took the subway from downtown Beijing to the University District 45 minutes to the northwest. My usual humid, crowded, standing-room-only ride was surprisingly pleasant—I got a seat the entire way. On any other day, no matter how I hustled, I would have missed my connection to the light-rail line by seconds; today the conductor held the train in the station in the vain hope of carrying a respectable load of passengers.
“I love Beijing this way,” exclaimed M., an expat friend, this afternoon as we walked along the empty street looking for a place to eat. “You get the whole city to yourself.” But the war on SARS has caused inconveniences as well. We struck out at five locked restaurants, including my favorite hole-in-the-wall Sichuan place that makes the gold standard of Kung Pao chicken, before settling on a mediocre Taiwanese fast-food restaurant. At lunch, we are all expats, so of course, talk turns to SARS: Who has left, who is leaving, what it will take for the rest of us to call it a China sojourn and go home. We wonder, have we stayed too long?