SARS vs COVID-19: Comparing My Experiences in China

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is not my first experience of living through an epidemic in China.

Back in 2003, a little over a month after I moved to Shanghai to start a new position with a multinational media organization, news of a deadly new pathogen that had apparently first emerged in southern China and since spread to Beijing, alarmed the public. It was called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

As COVID-19 has exploded into our lives this year, I’ve often found myself reflecting back on my experiences during SARS in China, comparing and contrasting. Here are some of the similarities and differences I’ve noted since the novel coronavirus outbreak began here in China.

SARS never affected lives across China as COVID-19 has

Shanghai, where I lived at the time, only saw a small handful of SARS cases in 2003. And while I did wear a mask as a precaution and paid plenty of attention to hygiene, I still lived my life much as I had before the news of SARS surfaced. I commuted to work by bus every day, ate out at restaurants on the weekends, and went out shopping to buy goods and groceries.

Other areas more hard hit by SARS did see more stringent measures, such as school closures in Beijing, but it didn’t constitute a nationwide response. Nevertheless, for many people, SARS hadn’t penetrated that close to home.

However, COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has truly became a nationwide – and of course, now global – crisis, more so than SARS ever was. It has touched every single province or region of China, the worst of course in the epidemic center of Hubei province and particular its capital Wuhan. And that has meant that everyone in this country has felt the effects of the novel coronavirus on their lives in some ways, such as the following:

  • Spending time holed up at home indoors, in some cases for weeks
  • Residential communities closed to outsiders who don’t live there
  • School closures or delays in opening
  • Shifts to working from home where possible
  • Bus transportation between provinces halted for periods
  • Online delivery services, much in demand for people staying indoors, saw enormous pressure at the height of the outbreak, with many finding it tough to order groceries through their favorite apps (including us)
  • Businesses being slow to open after Chinese New Year and suffering losses due to the epidemic

In essence, the entire nation of China found itself in hardship together during the novel coronavirus outbreak, making sacrifices and adjusting to this new kind of normal.

Temperature checks less common during SARS, ubiquitous in COVID-19

Back in Shanghai during SARS, I only recall one place within my regular sphere of life that did temperature checks – the office building next door to mine that housed a Subway sandwich shop. Whenever I wanted to pick up a sandwich for lunch, I had to get scanned by this guard holding a large testing device that reminded me of a ray gun from a science-fiction movie.

I never imagined that this isolated experience would become an ubiquitous reality in COVID-19. As I wrote recently, every place that matters in my life here in Beijing – office and community – requires me to pass a temperature check for entry (leading me to dub my temperature as a kind of “passport”). And the devices nowadays are much more compact, and probably more accurate, than what they used at that office during SARS.

And if you want to get around your city, you will have to pass through plenty of temperature checks nowadays, including if you choose to take public transport.

Holidays were canceled during SARS, but extended in COVID-19

SARS shook up the world, and particularly China, in mid-to-late-April, especially when the numbers of cases in Beijing surged. This all happened close to one of China’s major annual holidays, Labor Day. Back then, we were set to get an entire week off. But due to SARS, the government decided to cancel the holiday in order to discourage travel.

However, during the COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, outbreak, China instead extended holidays in an effort to encourage people to stay at home and not return to work too early. Across the nation, the Chinese New Year holiday, which should have ended Friday Jan 31, stretched until Sunday Feb 2. And even then, certain areas further delayed the end of the holiday, such as to Feb 9 in Shanghai.

Mask shortages more severe under COVID-19

After Jun and I learned of those handful of cases of SARS in Shanghai, we visited a supermarket that weekend to purchase some masks I could wear during my commute between the office and home. We found plenty of options and weren’t concerned about panic buying (though even during that time, there were some initial shortages of masks among medical personnel).

But with COVID-19, now that masks remain largely mandatory for anyone who wants to step outside of their community in China, a lot of mask hoarding has ensued.

Many people have struggled to purchase them as areas of China, including Hubei, saw shortages in medical supplies including masks. It created this nationwide mask crisis. In the early days of the outbreak, a story crossed my desk about all the stores in central Beijing that sold out of masks.

Fortunately, China has now reported producing more than enough masks to meet demand. Still, the novel coronavirus has migrated to other countries around the world, triggering similar runs on masks and shortages among medical centers of this vital form of medical protective gear. (It’s important to note that the WHO says only certain people need to wear a mask — and if you don’t count among them, consider not buying masks to reduce pressure on supplies.)

Disinfectant sells out for both SARS, COVID-19

When I wanted to buy alcohol at the local pharmacy during SARS, the staff told me they had sold out — a sign of just how widespread the panic already was in Shanghai.

In that respect, much hasn’t changed with COVID-19, as I’ve seen any kind of disinfecting product in short supply or not in stock. I’m fortunate I bought the bleach and other antibacterial cleansers I like to use a long time ago, because whenever I check on them online, they’re not available to buy.

Still, for much of the outbreak, I couldn’t even purchase my favorite brand of antibacterial hand soap and only just recently saw it available in my online supermarket. (I had to settle for an alternative, but that’s OK because any soap can effectively kill viruses.)

In both SARS, COVID-19, hope for an end

One thing that remains universal both during SARS and now with the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, epidemic — we all wish for an end as quickly as possible. Every day, I continue to pray for all those affected by the virus, from infected patients to medics on the front line and everyone else concerned about its spread across the world.

Let’s hope the end to the COVID-19 epidemic comes soon.

What do you think? If you have experienced SARS and COVID-19, what are your thoughts?

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