How SARS changed my life | Hong Kong 2003

How SARS changed my life | Hong Kong 2003

I am still surprised how the flight to Asia unsettled me, I am preparing to visit Hong Kong tomorrow. Returning for the first time since we left 16 years ago. After 8 and a half years of making this magnificent city our home… we left, suddenly, not through choice and not realising our move would be permanent. Our lives changed forever in just a few hours.

We were settled and loved our life in Hong Kong. Nice modest apartment in midlevels, two babies who were thriving well and a toddler who had just got into a sought-after Kindergarten, life was good.

Hmmmm. Maybe not perfect. Giving birth to the twins wasn’t straightforward and I wasn’t having the easiest of recoveries. I was weak and struggling. Terry was jobhunting, and we had just moved into a bigger, much more expensive apartment, so there was financial strain as our nestegg dwindled. Added to which our best friends and companions in HK had split up and I was struggling to deal with that too. In hindsight I was dealing with postnatal depression. In the UK I would have got help from the NHS but in HK I was struggling, not least because my independent streak wouldn’t let me ask for help.

Then came reports on the news about a mysterious ‘bug’ that people were catching, it was a new unknown strain and serious – serious enough that people were dying. At Church the following Sunday, a friend of ours (who was fairly senior at the University Hospital) warned us that this bug was completely unknown, dangerous and we should keep our children out of public areas until more was discovered.

At first I thought she was a bit bonkers and overreacting but over the next few days this new bug was given a name Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), it had originated in the Chinese province of Guangdong and been brought to Hong Kong by a businessman who stayed in a hotel in Kowloon and it was spreading like wildfire. First half a dozen people, then tens, then hundreds. The strain on the medical services was intense not least because of healthcare workers were also catching it and in some cases not surviving.

It was all over the news, every time I switched on the TV there was a deathcount, more facts more figures but no cure. People were talking about nothing else. Dozens of people in a single tower block were infected. It wasn’t long before the Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau closed all kindergartens, Nurseries, and Schools. Playgrounds and recreational facilities were closed. People started wearing face masks to prevent the spread of germs, stores were stripped clean of hand sanitizer and cleaning products.

On a personal level, with Charlotte’s kindergarten closed that meant there was little reason to go out, I become acutely terrified of my children catching anything. Terry went out for shopping and business meetings and when he came home had a shower before he could be near any of us. I was cooped up and very afraid and absolutely paranoid. I wouldn’t let friends visit, I couldn’t cope with Terry going out. As the days then weeks went on, I got worse spending my days in the pit of despair.

Statements were regularly given out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) telling people what to do and what not to do. The virus had now spread to other countries, so the Centre of Disease Control on Prevention (CDC) issued a travel advisory stating that only essential air travel should take place. They still were not sure at this point whether SARS was airborne or not.

I was spiraling out of control, I knew many people who were going out each day to work and others who were carrying on as normal without a mask in sight. I had my children, my babies to think about… more people died.

By mid April, we had been housebound (and HK apartments are SMALL) for nearly a month, Terry persuaded me to see a doctor. I was petrified about leaving the flat and I remember crying all the way down the hill. The Doctor asked me to remove my sodden mask, which I refused, she gently told me that as serious as the situation was, she had a duty of care to me and she advised me to go back to the UK until the panic was over. I couldn’t comprehend what she was telling me, to get on an aeroplane against all advice and risk my family to SARS. I couldn’t understand how that would be best.

When I got home Terry sprang into action, I was still not convinced but he phoned Cathay Pacific and booked us all tickets home. We packed a suitcase with essentials, phoned home and left for the airport before I could change my mind. The whole process took about 4 hours.

And we left Hong Kong, our home…

The flight was virtually empty, we could have had a row of seats to ourselves. I was in a mess throughout the whole flight. We arrived home 11th April 2003. Ironically, it was the following day that scientists in Canada had a breakthrough in finding the cause which led to treatment of SARS. When we arrived in the UK we put ourselves in voluntary isolation for a few days in case any of us developed symptoms, we stayed at my Mum’s house which she vacated and went to stay with my Grandmother, friends found baby equipment and left food parcels on Mum’s doorstep. We were back.

In the weeks that followed Terry found a new job, back in the UK, he travelled back to HK to shut up the flat and ship all our things home. Obviously it would have been too difficult to take the 3 children back so I stayed in the UK.

Until now…

I am returning…

So forgive me if I am a bit emotional about it.

In the end 8000 people worldwide caught the disease and a staggering 10% of those died (nearly half of those were in Hong Kong), 800 people doesn’t sound a lot worldwide however the point is that SARS was a new disease and it spread fast, if it wasn’t through the WHO, the CDC and scientists all over the globe working round the clock to find a treatment that worked who knows what would happen? As it was, SARS disappeared as quick as it reared its ugly head. Who knows if we ever were really at risk but one thing is for sure, SARS changed my life… forever. 

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3 comments on “How SARS changed my life | Hong Kong 2003

  1. I remember this time well, Mum spent a lot of time phoning around everyone she knew trying to get as many high chairs and cots etc for you. It brought a year to my eye reading that as I remember how worried we all were about you. It must have been difficult for you writing it. Xxx

    • It was and it wasn’t, the whole experience certainly defined me and resonates even now. Our holiday was very special. Without the people back home (your parents included) I don’t know how I would have got through it. x

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