Sun, Apr 06, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Designer face masks hit Hong Kong as SARS spreads

THE GUARDIAN , HONG KONG

Famed for its counterfeit couture, Hong Kong is not backward about being forward when it comes to fashion, and the spread of the lethal atypical pneumonia has been no exception. With the vast majority of the local population now donning a facemask to protect themselves from the virus, the temptation to stand out from the crowd has proved too much for some.

Earlier this week a tai tai -- Hong Kong's notoriously fashion conscious trophy wives -- was seen sashaying out of the Landmark hotel, home to the best fashion boutiques, with a "Nike" mask. She is not alone, eyewitnesses have seen "Armani" and "Versace" masks in addition to an array of child-friendly masks bearing such icons as Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty.

There is, of course, no evidence that these have come from legitimate sources. But this should come as no surprise given the rule of supply and demand in the former colony, where enterprising young men bearing goods appear on street corners at the drop of a Tommy Hilfiger hat.

Bearing tattoos and dyed hair -- the marque of the triad criminal gangs -- these men have been spotted across Hong Kong, squaring the cycle between scant supply and panic-stricken demand for masks.

Outside office hours even expat drinking haunts are beginning to resemble ghost towns.

During lunch breaks, however, you will see crowds of smartly dressed Cantonese workers letting their masks slip for a bowl of noodles and soup in cheek-by-jowl street-side cafes. Given that the virus in question is believed to be transmitted through minute droplets -- via sneezing or spitting -- the value of the masks would seem open to question when old habits die hard.

Nevertheless the fear of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is real and justified. With whole estates being removed to quarantine camps and some hospitals crippled by the toll on health workers, there is a rising sense of panic in the territory.

For the medical scientists at the forefront of the battle to fully diagnose the disease, masks should surely be a necessity. But earlier this week at the Queen Mary hospital some of the team felt confident enough to dispense with masks once away from the restricted laboratories.

In their defense they had the perfect excuse -- it is not easy to be heard when wearing a face mask.

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