Chapter 61: Unmasking SARS Panic

Surgical masks
When surgical masks appeared on the faces of coworkers, I knew the SARS panic had infected our office. (image by Blossoma, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

You know there’s something wrong when the entire Sales Department starts wearing surgical masks.

That’s what I saw one afternoon on April 22, 2003, after returning to the office from my lunch break. Only Sales hid their faces behind sterilized gauze, turning our office into a corporate version of an ER triage department. And like triage, those of us sitting at our desks were no better than the families awaiting their loved ones in surgery — hiding worries behind a calm countenance.

As we approached the National Day Holiday — a week long national holiday in China from May 1 to May 7 — I had my own concerns. According to the Chinese government, we only technically had five, not seven, days off — even though they gave us a weekend in there somewhere. So that meant we had to sacrifice a weekend before or after the break to “pay” for this. In my case, I’d have to work through the coming weekend, facing a tiring ten-day work week.

“Are you ready for our ten-day work marathon?” I joked to my coworker and trainer, Steve, April 21 — Monday morning — when I came into the office.

Steve’s face looked as grim as a doctor bearing bad news. “It’s been canceled.”

“What?” Was this just more of Steve’s usual morning sarcasm?

“The National Day holiday has been canceled, because of SARS.”

The only worse thing than having a ten-day work week is not having one — because of an illness that is no long just an illness anymore. The Chinese government had never before canceled a holiday, and the move turned SARS into something beyond just a vague threat — SARS had the power to change our whole lives in China. “They already dismissed Beijing’s mayor and the health minister. Apparently, they’ve been covering up the situation — it’s far worse than anyone expected,” Steve explained.

Wednesday morning, our managers abruptly called us into a meeting. Before us stood Haley, our Chinese production manager, a lovely, but tough, thirtysomething woman with flowing shoulder length hair and a sharpshooting talent for finding mistakes in our ads. And I found no comfort in seeing Haley standing before us, with a surgical mask on.

“Human Resources deliberated about this matter for some time,” she announced. “They’ve decided to recommend, as a precaution, that all employees wear masks in the workplace at all times.

“Additionally, we realize that many of you are concerned about restaurants.” The office officially prohibited employees from eating at desks, or even in meeting rooms. “Management would like to recommend that you not go out for lunch. We will make the meeting rooms available for people to eat lunch. Since there is not enough room for everyone, we will have schedules for lunch time.”

Steve and I grimaced at each other in disbelief, as if we’d just been placed under a sort of quarantine.

“SARS is a serious problem, but why isn’t the company offering serious solutions?” I posed to Steve later that day during lunch in a Taiwanese restaurant across the street, where we were the only customers, and the wait staff all wore masks.

“The surgical masks are no good at all,” Steve frowned. “Only those N-95 masks are actually effective.”

I sighed at his words. “You’d wish there was more science in their directives. Maybe it’s comforting to wear those masks, but there’s no real comfort in something that doesn’t even work. These so-called protective devices make me even more nervous in the office.”

“No kidding. It’s like an emergency room now.”

“It is an emergency room — an emotional emergency,” I added. Even though my coworkers didn’t have SARS, I now faced an office infected with panic.


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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