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?

Love (in China) in the Time of a Crisis

Barbed wire fence in the shape of a heart
(photo by sallydell)

Just this weekend, John and I weathered two crises.

One happened with this site — my host decided to turn off his server by the end of this month. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t move things like I expected, my old host wasn’t responsive, and I didn’t know where to find someone who could help me in time (thank you Sorella Design, for the extraordinary hosting and moving help, and BlogVault, which made it possible to get my databases and files off my former host).

The other happened with John — he didn’t get an internship, and now he’s scrambling to get applications together for the next round by Thursday, March 1. 

But it’s our love that keeps us moving forward. And that got me thinking about all the times on this site when I’ve written about love in China and crises. So, to give this writer a chance to catch her breath, I’m sharing a few classic crisis-related entries for anyone who could use a little more drama. (Yeah, right 😉 )

Love in the Time of Stomach Inflammation. What should have been a romantic night together for John and I turned into a night at the hospital.

On the Border, at the Public Security Bureau. When I had to face the Public Security Bureau in Hangzhou — and the consequences of my expired visa — John stayed by my side.

Negotiating For My Life in China. One thing I always admired about John — he’s a fighter. See how he helped me fight against my former boss in China.

Love in the Time of SARS.When SARS struck Shanghai, John and I were still a young couple in love, trying to hold onto that romance in the midst of this deadly viral outbreak.

How has love helped you through the hard times?

Chapter 65: SARS Propaganda and False Security

People's militia
While SARS plagued China in May 2003, SARS propaganda plagued the TV reels on the bus I took to work (image of 1958 China propaganda from Wikimedia Commons).

The slogan of Oriental Pearl Moving Television — broadcasted on LCD TVs installed in the buses I rode downtown — was this: “you can learn about all of the news under the sun without stepping foot off the bus”.

But during SARS, it was more like: “you can hear all of the SARS propaganda under the sun, without stepping foot off the bus.”

In the thirty minutes or so I spent on the bus, I saw five different spots — repeated at least three times:

1. Moments from real people “on the front lines” fighting against SARS. A woman passes out propaganda sheets about SARS. A public servant examines travelers at the railway station. A factory worker sews up masks. A cleaning lady disinfects subway cars. A little girl washes her hands. A doctor appears in a mask. The ending message? “This is our battlefield. Fight to the end, we’ll certainly be successful.” Continue reading “Chapter 65: SARS Propaganda and False Security”

Chapter 64: Living in the Face of SARS

Doctor in a surgical mask
As a friend goes into quarantine, and the virus closes in on John's hometown in the countryside, I had to learn how to live with the threat of SARS, everyday.

I could have been quarantined.

One of the employees at Alibaba — the Internet company I interviewed at in Hangzhou — contracted SARS while attending the Canton Fair. On her second visit to the hospital, she discovered her illness was no typical flu. And just like that, everyone who worked in Alibaba — and other companies sharing the office building — was put under quarantine in early May, 2003, including John’s high school classmate, Douglas.

I wanted so much to stay in Hangzhou only months before, and work for Alibaba. Weeks after I moved to Shanghai and began work for the global media company, Alibaba even called to offer me the job — which of course I turned down. I came so close to this company. I could have been another casualty of SARS.

As SARS continued to spread, before long it began to touch the people you know and care about. Continue reading “Chapter 64: Living in the Face of SARS”

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. Continue reading “Chapter 63: SARS and Scare-buying”

Chapter 62: The Quietest May Day Ever

Rapid transit in Beijing during SARS
The SARS epidemic turned China's May holiday into the quietest one I had ever seen, with abandoned streets, shopping centers, and even public transit. (image by zh-wp, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Never had a country of over 1.2 billion people seen such a quiet holiday.

Historically, May 1 began one of China’s “golden weeks” — seven days of unadulterated travel, shopping or even just relaxing with family and friends. Of course, with everyone on break at the same time, travel was either too expensive, too crowded, or too hard to get tickets — and shopping meant you had to elbow your way in with the masses to get a good deal. The holiday, arguably, was a perfect example of the Chinese concept of 热闹 [rènÉ‘o] — the lively, bustling, crowded, fire-breathing nature that is China, home to the descendants of the dragon.

There was no renao on this May 1, in 2003, since the Chinese government had canceled the holiday because of SARS. That cut the usual seven days down to five for most of us — except for John. Continue reading “Chapter 62: The Quietest May Day Ever”

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.” Continue reading “Chapter 61: Unmasking SARS Panic”

Chapter 60: Love in the time of SARS

Hong Kong people wearing masks during SARS
Just as SARS began, and panic slowly began to mask the public, it felt odd to be so in love, in China. (Image from

I’d been working for barely a month in Shanghai, when news of SARS began to spread like the virus itself.

Masks quietly spread around the bus I rode into downtown Shanghai.

The women’s bathroom became our morning decontamination station, as everyone washed their hands more obsessively than Lady MacBeth — over conversations about whether or not to buy face masks.

E-mails about Hong Kong infected my inbox, with seemingly fictional photographs of people muzzled with face masks, and health workers dressed in outfits straight out of the Andromeda Strain.

Even the office showed symptoms of the SARS scare. Continue reading “Chapter 60: Love in the time of SARS”