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SARS Impacting Daily Life in Hong Kong - 2003-04-25

Six weeks into the outbreak, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS has changed life in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been hit hard by the disease, which is responsible for the deaths of more than of 100 people.

Morning rush hour in Hong Kong sees hordes of workers hurrying to their office towers. Until a few weeks ago, people would push each other and crowd into elevators. But today, the idea of being trapped inside an enclosed space with a dozen people, even for just one minute, is a nightmare.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, has made many Hong Kong people wary of the person next to them. One slight sneeze or cough can keep people anxious for the next 10 days, the usual incubation period for the sometimes deadly disease that has infected thousands around the world.

For some, wearing a surgical mask and frequent hand washing are no longer enough. Plastic gloves are also necessary. Others even wear masks at home or inside the family car.

SARS changed life in Hong Kong almost overnight. From its slogan as "Asia's world city," Hong Kong has become a place to avoid, almost an international pariah. Few tourists wander the streets and the city's tourist spots, such as Lan Kwai Fong, are quiet even on weekends. Some restaurant owners complain their closings are imminent and bar hostesses in Wanchai, Hong Kong's red light district, complain they lack customers. People are staying home, renting videos, and eating home cooked dinners.

Like many young people his age, this 22-year-old said SARS is curtailing his social life. "I try to let it not change my life too much," he said. "But I'm definitely a lot more cautious in terms of where I go and who I hang out with and the people I see."

A fruit seller, whose customers include hotels whose occupancy rates have plummeted, lamented how terrible business has been since the outbreak. She said her business is suffering because hotels have cut back orders for fruit baskets.

Some expatriates have fled Hong Kong for fear of getting the disease, and for all Hong Kong residents, it is getting harder to travel overseas. A number of countries have imposed strict quarantine guidelines on people from SARS-affected areas, while in other cases, family or friends prefer not to get a visit from someone coming from a SARS affected territory.

Thousands of Philippine domestic workers in Hong Kong, hoping to go home to visit their families over the Easter holiday, were asked not to come because they might bring SARS with them.

Many Hong Kong people worry that SARS might become forever associated with Hong Kong - whose official name is Hong Kong SAR, or special administrative region.

Local media have been reluctant to use the SARS acronym, with reporters calling the disease atypical pneumonia or AP. One resident suggested to media that the disease should be called PRC, or Pneumonia Related to China - where SARS is believed to have originated. PRC also stands for the People's Republic of China.

In the last few days, the government launched a massive cleaning campaign to curb the virus's spread and to salvage Hong Kong's tarnished image overseas.

By now, thousands of households are familiar with the slogan - one to 99. Public advertisements say cleaning with a mixture of one percent bleach to 99 percent water every day will kill the virus.

Six weeks into the outbreak, Hong Kong people are slowly realizing that life must go on.

After days of being cooped up in fear of the disease, thousands of families descended onto Hong Kong's beaches and country parks over the Easter weekend. Others, confronting their fears, are buying plague-themed movies and books.

Charity groups are raising funds for healthcare workers at the frontlines of the SARS battle and others are sending cheerful messages to hospitals and running advertisements praising their efforts. TV stations are playing encouraging songs like this in between commercials.

While the disease continues to take its toll, Hong Kong and its people, famous for their resilience, seems to be getting back its bustle.