Features

China: Painful prognosis

International | For Hong Kong residents emerging from the SARS epidemic, city life faces a lengthy recuperation too

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

NAN PIN CHEE WAS A BUSY MAN. The head of Missionary Training College of Asia and Hong Kong representative for WEC International, Mr. Chee was known as a quiet and wise leader among the city's large assembly of long-serving missionaries devoted to Hong Kong and mainland China.

The busy life for Mr. Chee and his family ended in March when their sprawling apartment complex in Hong Kong's New Territories came under SARS quarantine. In Amoy Gardens over 300 people came down with SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The 54-year-old Mr. Chee, his wife, and their 15-year-old son were among those cases. All three were hospitalized for weeks as one semi-comatose day ran into the next, characterized by high fever, painful wracking coughs, and other pneumonia-like symptoms.

From the confinement of their hospital beds, the family used cell phones to keep in touch with one another, along with a daughter who is studying in Scotland. Hospitalization for SARS can typically last six weeks, one phase in a lengthy recuperation from the spectral virus that has launched a six-month panic in Asia and many other parts of the world.

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But during his hospital stay, Mr. Chee grew worse. He developed liver complications and spent four weeks in intensive care on a ventilator after both lungs collapsed. By mid-May his wife Eleanor was well enough to go home. Their son Matthew, still in the hospital, was well enough to remember to send flowers on Mother's Day, a custom that belonged to Mr. Chee. "Mom, I just had to send you these flowers because Dad was unable to do so. I know he would want you to have them," read a note delivered by church friends, along with two bouquets.

A week later Matthew was discharged. But Mr. Chee never made the turn toward recovery. He died on May 17, less than 24 hours after Matthew's discharge.

During those last hours both wife and son were able to be reunited with him, "talking to him, telling him all those things we wanted to, crying together and praying," Mrs. Chee wrote to friends in an e-mail sent a few hours after he died. A native of Malaysia (his wife is from New Zealand), Mr. Chee was the first long-standing mission leader to die of the virus.

Health experts say the outbreak of SARS has peaked. When Hong Kong passed its first day with no new cases on May 24, the headline in one Chinese-language newspaper declared, "Hong Kong smiles again." But for many Asians, the downhill slide of SARS continues to bring more grief-both personal and economic-than relief.

Hong Kong is a quieter version of its once-boisterous self. The city of 7 million, a special administrative region of China, was hardest hit per capita, with 1,730 cases and 270 deaths reported through last month. Hong Kong has had 20 percent of the world's SARS cases, but 36 percent of SARS deaths. An open border and high population density have bolstered the casualty rate even though the numbers appear to have topped out.

In the worst days of SARS, hotels, hospitals, and complexes like the 19-building Amoy Gardens, where the Chees lived, all came under quarantine. At Amoy, city officials packed off affected residents for a 10-day isolation at a holiday camp. Health officials discouraged city-goers from using public transportation and joining large gatherings. They encouraged residents to wear surgical masks everywhere and to bathe and launder clothing after every public outing. Also ubiquitous: commercials advertising the ratio of bleach-to-water, 1:99, for brewing a proper home disinfectant.

Now, say Hong Kong residents, life is returning to normal. And it isn't. Schools have reopened, but most will have classes until mid-summer because of days missed due to SARS. Restaurants are busy again, but not to the level of their former bustle.

Many businesses face new regulations as city officials try to clean up practices that could lead to the spread of SARS. On May 29 the government announced "hygiene rules," which Chief Secretary Donald Tsang admitted were "draconian." Under the new measures Hong Kong residents could be fined $750 and receive a criminal record for spitting (a popular public practice among Chinese) and littering. He said authorities will monitor street food vendors and may ban the sale of live poultry.

The city has also mapped out a six-month plan for inspecting and refurbishing public housing after an investigation of Amoy Gardens concluded that the outbreak there likely resulted from faulty sewage pipes and improper ventilation fans.

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