"I hope you aren't offended," a friend in the US wrote me recently, "that I'm wearing a face mask as I am e-mailing you. Can never be too careful, y'know."
Had it really come to this? I knew Americans were worked up about SARS, but had they become stupid, as well? After a second, I realized she was joking, partly in response to my complaints about the hysterical and occasionally overwrought response to this new disease.
American universities were banning students and visitors from SARS-affected areas. People were avoiding Chinese restaurants. I hear stories of expatriates leaving Beijing to go to Europe or the US and being outcasts among family and friends. Everyone back home assumes I walk around with a mask all the time.
Actually, most of us are living a pretty normal life. Yes, more than 2,000 people in Beijing have been infected by the SARS virus, but more than 13 million of us have not.
Although quite a few people in the capital are still wearing masks, others have sworn off them. One taxi driver told me he wore one for two days and couldn't stand it. Now he questions the need.
"I'm not afraid of people without masks anymore," he said, apropos of nothing. "I'm afraid of the people WITH masks. They're either sick, or they're sick in the head."
It has been interesting to observe the different phases people went through. Around mid-March, when the disease was spreading through Hong Kong and started gaining international attention, Beijingers were blase while foreigners were abuzz with anxiety.
As the weeks went by and the numbers increased, we traded rumors about hidden cases in Beijing and government cover-up. Diplomats and businessmen sent their wives and children home. Others took extreme precautions, such as stripping off all their clothes the second they got home and throwing them in the washing machine. We told our Chinese staff, who received almost no information from Chinese media, to wash their hands frequently and avoid crowds.
By April 20, when authorities came clean and the official figures for Beijing increased more than nine-fold overnight, Chinese people had made a 180-degree turnaround, outdoing us in both the panic-spreading and rumor-mongering departments.
But by then, government admissions only confirmed what we already suspected. If anything, we felt a sense of relief. Expatriates then started griping about closed restaurants and being unable to take weekend trips to the countryside for hiking and biking because villagers had blocked roads and authorities had closed forest preserves, temples and other sites. Meanwhile, the Chinese sat at home, afraid to go outside.
Early this month, with reports of Beijing being a "ghost town" and the numbers jumping by more than a hundred cases a day, my friends and family assumed I was staying home, too. No wonder Americans thought we were living in a "hot zone." The University of California at Berkeley took the extreme measure of banning summer students coming from affected areas of China.
Most of us don't feel as if we're living in a danger zone. If anything, I would call it a fear zone.
After blacking out news of SARS for months, the state-run media is now all SARS, all the time. With the dramatic turnaround, who could blame Chinese citizens for panicking. Never before has there been such blanket coverage of a disease.