Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

Life during the SARS outbreak in Taiwan

In 2002/3 it looked for a while as if the world was about to end. I was a recent arrival in Taiwan when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appeared on the scene, and watched events unfolding with a sense of detachment from reality. It was happening to 'them' but not to me.

In retrospect, that was a pretty stupid attitude to take. But most of us are guilty of denial when faced with threats we can't really comprehend. Disease is an invisible enemy, and until it actually starts affecting people close to us it remains someone else's problem.

So the big issue I got from this task was that risk = hazard + outrage

This is the priniciple that perceived danger and real danger are different things, and are damaging in different ways. When formulating a response to an outbreak, it is important to deal with the pereceived danger as well as the real one. I posted two pics in the photos section, taken during the height of the crisis when I had no work to do due to school closures:

One shows the army driving around the city spraying disinfectant - a pretty pointless act from the perspective of killing germs, but one which reassured a jittery public. People need to see that their government is taking action, and that there is someone to call on if they need help. The presence of all those "action" people was intended to make people feel that the situation was under control, although personally I feel it added to the sense that we were under seige. Daily reports on the news about medical staff being prevented from leaving the hospitals designated as treatment centres didn't help either.

The other is of a normal day on the MRT (subway, underground, metro, U-bahn) . Many businesses were closed, or operating a minimal service to reduce the risk of people infecting each other. And most people preferred use private travel instead of public transport for the same reason. So, instead of being packed with commuters, the train was almost empty and it was easy to read the advertising. But it was all boring public health announcements, no exciting bikini-clad girls encouraging me to buy something.

The lasting memory of that time is the way that, even with relatively few casualties, the disease caused an enormous disruption to normal life. The security that is a feature of our civilised developed world disappeared almost overnight, and we were like frightened animals trapped in a pen - waiting to see who would die next. I comforted myself by staying at home and reading about the impact of the Black Death in Europe on Wikipedia: This has been seen as creating a series of religious, social and economic upheavals which had profound effects on the course of European history.

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Comment by Paul Holze on May 6, 2010 at 7:12pm
This has been seen as creating a series of religious, social and economic upheavals which had profound effects on the course of European history.


Have you seen any such progression of changes in Taiwan since the SARS outbreak?
Comment by Chris Ke Sihai on May 6, 2010 at 10:23pm
No. We had a scare, and a very small number of casualties due to something that was reasonably well understood. Europe lost a third of its population, and nobody knew what was going on.

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