The SARS outbreak now afflicting Asia may achieve what public campaigns have failed to do for years -- get people to stop spitting in public and discard other filthy habits, and China aspires to head off any future plagues with a brand new center for disease control.
Eleven Singaporeans have been fined 170 Singapore dollars each after being caught spitting in public as the city-state stepped up enforcement of a law against the practice, and other countries are waging similar campaigns.
One man who ignored his summons was issued a warrant of arrest, and those fined did not even dare to clear their throats when they appeared in court, said the Straits Times, which published most of the offenders' pictures on its front page yesterday to drive home the message.
Spitting is a common sight in many Asian cities and with the notable exception of Japan, the standard of public hygiene in the region is still widely seen as lagging behind that of industrialized countries.
"I think that SARS has brought to the forefront how inadequate we are when it comes to attending to personal hygiene habits," said Braema Mathi, a nominated member of parliament in Singapore, who complained that some people still leave their "litter" behind in public toilets.
Mathi, a hospital executive, said that "perhaps one good outcome of this SARS outbreak is to make us realise that we have been far too tolerant and that we should not condone such bad habits."
The virus can be spread through droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and droplets are spread generally within one meter. One also risks exposure to SARS through direct contact with respiratory secretions or body fluids of an infected person.
Singapore, whose stringent measures to contain SARS like mass quarantines and school closures have been emulated by its neighbors, recently launched a program to encourage good hygiene.
Public toilets were the first target of the "Singapore's OK" campaign started in May by the National Environment Agency (NEA). There are about 29,000 public toilet blocks in the island.
The NEA said that although there is no evidence so far of SARS spreading through environmental factors, "it is prudent that we do not take chances and observe good precautionary measures to minimize any such potential risks."
In China's capital Beijing, government bodies, the military, students and companies have been ordered to take part in a massive cleanup as part of its SARS eradication campaign.
"Efforts should be made to clean up garbage that has piled up for a long time, sanitize rural areas, and create public awareness about the cleaning campaign," said a decree issued by the Beijing city government.
Guangzhou city, located in Guangdong Province where the virus apparently originated, recently dispatched 1,000 sanitary workers to patrol the streets for people spitting in an effort to curb the spread of SARS.
Individuals found spitting were warned they face fines of up to 50 renminbi (US$6) and would be ordered to clean up their mess.
China had launched numerous campaigns in the past to discourage people from spitting in public, but the practice is still widespread, especially in cities with serious air pollution, where residents feel a need to clear their throats.
In Hong Kong, summons will be issued to anyone found spitting or littering.