Fear and SARS in Shanghai.

I was on my way to Beijing the other day and a strange thing happened...

Two days ago the masks were at about 1 in 100 on the street. People with masks were getting frank stares, and pitying glances. Everyone knew that Shanghai had escaped the worst of the Severe Actute Respiratory Syndrome, and that we'd all be laughing about this in a few days. But then the news that Beijing had just upped the number of cases started to really filter down.

Two days ago I got a phone call that all the classes I was returning to Beijing to teach were cancelled, and several other friends who are now stuck in what is essentially a closed city phoned me to plead that I stay away.

Yesterday when I walked past the gates of the local army barracks, the soldiers on guard duty were wearing masks. Hello, I thought, something has changed. For Chinese soldiers to do that, heck for any soldiers to do that someone in charge somewhere, someone with facts at their disposal, has given that order.

Yesterday I sat at dinner with three friends in a restaurant. Somewhere, a couple of tables down and across, someone started coughing. All conversation stopped, and everyone in the restaurant stared. Several people covered their mouths. The cougher experienced the collective apprehension and felt moved to say "La! La!" meaning "The spices! The spices!" We all laughed, nervously.

Today I didn't want to go out at all. My flight back to Australia (Beijing is no longer an option, no matter how much I want to go "home") is on Sunday, and I just realised (ok so I'm stupid) what kind of nightmare I'm placing myself into should I evince so much as a sniffle after I arrive in Sydney.

Today I forced myself to go out and get something to eat (no use lowering my immune response) and saw that today masks are about 1 in 20.

Tomorrow they'll be 1 in 10 and suddenly I'm glad I've got a plane ticket. I'm sorry, maybe I've let the fear win, maybe I will look back on this and squirm at my own cowardice, but goddamn this is suddenly a scary place to be.

Tomorrow I know I'll be hoping that the planes will still be flying. I don't know about SARS, but the fear is here, and it's spreading.