Chapter 63: SARS and Scare-buying

a bottle of cleaning alcohol
First comes SARS, then comes panic, then comes scare-buying. I discover the local pharmacies are all sold out of cleaning alcohol during SARS, and I wonder -- what will be next?

It was mid-May, 2003, in Shanghai — in the midst of the SARS epidemic — and I had just stopped at a pharmacy, to buy some alcohol for disinfecting our home. Or so I thought. “Meiyou — we don’t have any.” The shopkeeper, a matronly woman with a cap of silvery curls, said the words I feared.

I trudged back to our apartment, with the news. “I can’t believe it — they’ve sold out of alcohol!”

John looked towards me, his calm face the opposite of the near-panic and frustration I harbored within. “Scare-buying.” He said it as if he was announcing what we’d have for lunch, or mentioning an interesting news story.

Except there was nothing common about it, to me. “Great.” Here we were in the midst of SARS, and an important tool — alcohol — was now out of my reach.

But it wasn’t just alcohol.

“Has anyone been able to find banlangen?” I overheard one of my coworkers, a young twentysomething girl twirling her brown-dyed hair. Banlangen is this herbal tea used to combat everything from inflammation to flu.

“No,” chimed in another girl, her hair dyed brown and cut like a boy. “Ever since someone said it cures SARS, it’s been sold out everywhere.

The thing is, with an epidemic like SARS comes an epidemic of panic, followed by an epidemic of scare-buying — one that China seemed to ignore. I could live without alcohol. I didn’t believe that banlangen really cured SARS. But at some point, scare-buying starts to threaten the necessities — and what are you going to do?

When I walked to the shopping mall one day, I noticed a bicycle-powered rickshaw cart, piled with vitamins in the back. I still had vitamins on hand at home — but I had to wonder if I’d get another “meiyou” next time I hoped to pick up some vitamin C.

Did you ever experience shortages (in China or elsewhere) because of an epidemic, or a disaster?


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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3 thoughts on “Chapter 63: SARS and Scare-buying

  • May 4, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Good morning! Can I ask a big favor? My godson George is turning 15 tomorrow and I’m featuring him in a post called Day of the Divers. Can you land some of your friends leave him a message in Chinese to wish him a happy birthday? He studies at a Chinese-speaking school in Russia and is about to head over to China for 2 months to study. I know he would be thrilled!!
    Thank you so much in advance. Post will be up at midnight EDT on May 5th. I can’t think what time that would be where you are…
    .-= Jennifer´s last blog ..Why I Hate Dachas, and You Should Too! =-.

    • May 4, 2010 at 9:25 pm

      @Jennifer, thanks for the comment. Sure I’d be happy to leave a message for him on your site — I’ll look for the post tomorrow.

      @Jessica, thanks for sharing. Ummm, yes, I remember the vinegar (and resulting funky smells in certain places). And I do remember Hugo a bit — that must have been a really scary situation not to be able to find the things you need, and unable to leave b/c the roads were clogged.

  • May 4, 2010 at 8:46 am

    I remember during SARS I went to Lijiang and they’d spray the bus and us down with vinegar every few miles. I’m sure all it did was cause everything and everyone to reek but hey, the word on the street was that vinegar was the answer.

    The scare-buying reminds me of when I was a kid and a big Hurricane — Hugo — was heading for my hometown of Charleston. You couldn’t find bottled water or batteries anywhere the day before the storm, and traffic heading out of the city for evacuation was backed up for hours and hours. Fear is quite the motivator!
    .-= Jessica´s last blog ..Father, Son and a Big Music Festival (with mom too) =-.


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