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A Season Of Fear

by Joshua Samuel Brown

Describing the origins of SARS is virtually a Rorschach test
Americans love fear. No other people in the world get off on being terrified the way that Americans do. Did Thailand produce all those Friday the Thirteenth movies? I think not. But like any good purveyor of voyeuristic fear, we want our threats to be threatening without actually being too real. SARS is just what the doctor ordered for the American public's between-war humdrums.

SARS is, of course, a virulent and deadly form of pneumonia about which little is known, and for which there is no known cure. Worldwide about 6600 people have been diagnosed with SARS, and fewer than 500 have died from it. But thanks in part to an alarmist media, the American public still seems to be unaware that SARS poses a ridiculously low threat to the average Chinese citizen, and an even more miniscule threat to the average American. Restaurants in New York's Chinatown, still reeling from the effects of 9/11, are reporting that business is way down as people stay away out of fear of getting a complimentary side of SARS with their sesame noodles.

One reason SARS is a perfect bogeyman is because it hails from the Orient, the home of that most honorable of American neuroses, the Yellow Peril. Describing the origins of SARS is virtually a Rorschach test. Journalists with a mild case of anti-Asian fever suggest that SARS originated because people in the southern Chinese province live in squalor -- cheek to beak and snout with ducks and pigs. Those with full-blown Chinaphobia -- such as the hard-right World Net Daily web newspaper -- suggest that SARS could be a Commie bioweapon gone awry. For good measure, that article also throws in the old urban legend that the Communist Chinese are cannibals and consider human fetuses a delicacy. (This blood libel has been repeated by Christian and conservative PRC-bashers since it was first used to undermine Beijing's hosting of the 1995 United Nations Women's Conference.) Rarely mentioned is that scientists believe the virus emerged from the bustling marketplace, where it crossed over from exotic wild animals that are being sold in cages next to livestock.

But we can't hold the American media completely responsible for nurturing the SARS monster. The Asian media crossed the line from responsible information provider to purveyor of abject fear some time ago. Hong Kong's Daily Standard Newspaper on April 25th featured a two page map with circles drawn to represent neighborhoods where SARS patients have been identified. The largest circle covered an area where probably a quarter million people lived. The actual death toll for the whole area: five.

Even worse was the Chinese government's handling of the whole situation, which has been likened to throwing gasoline on a bonfire. The state-controlled Chinese media's pollyannic handling of crises are legendary (the fastest way to cause a national panic in China would be to print bogus copies of the People's Daily with "Don't Panic" on the cover). So when, after months of ignoring the situation, the Chinese government decided to deal with it, they naturally did so in the most ham-fisted way possible, causing the national moodswing from "don't worry, be happy" to "barricade yourself in your homes, duct tape your windows shut and wait for your neighbors to die."

As a result, a season of madness has gripped Asia. Rumors of magical preventions abound: The South China Post reports that vinegar, turnips, and cigarette smoking are said to prevent SARS -- although smokers had to lower their surgical masks to puff away, of course. In Taiwan, the price of fresh pineapple tripled in one week. Beijing's transformation from bustling metropolis to ghost town has made for great photo opportunities of Chairman Mao scowling down over a deserted Tienanmen Square. which only serves to reinforce our own crisis mentality.

But the self-perpetuating cycle of panic and media coverage obscures the fact that the SARS epidemic is being blown way out of proportion. To put this into perspective, SARS doesn't even come close to competing with a minor killer like yellow fever (30,000 deaths and 200,000 new cases a year), let alone a heavyweight malady like tuberculosis -- widely available on any NYC subway -- and which kills someone in the world every 15 seconds.

It's also likely that the reported number of SARS cases have been greatly exaggerated. Dan Epstein, an information officer with the Pan American Health Organization, says that normal pneumonia is probably claiming up to ten times more lives in China than SARS. But who knows? China does not release statistics on pneumonia or influenza. Epstein also says SARS may be misdiagnosed in rural areas because X-ray machines aren't available, and only chest X-rays reveal the telltale differences between SARS and normal pneumonia. So it's possible that a sizeable number of deaths attributed to SARS aren't caused by that virus at all. The same goes for the U.S. -- of the 65 cases linked to SARS, only six patients have been proven to definitely have the disease. As with China, it's possible that most of the cases aren't SARS at all.

Luckily, a few cooler heads are making themselves heard above the hysteria. In a subplot running through a recent episode of the Comedy Central cartoon South Park, the town comes down with SARS (imported, naturally, from China). Infected with this mystery disease. "Hurry son," one father implores as he sends his son off to discover the cure, "Soon, only 98% of us will be left alive."

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Albion Monitor May 11, 2003 (

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