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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

SARS Update

Air Date: Week of

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has spread to more than a dozen countries throughout the world. One of the hardest hit places is Hong Kong. The World Health Organization has issued an alert for that region, advising against all but essential travel. Host Steve Curwood talks with Hong Kong based Wall Street Journal reporter Matt Pottinger, who has been ordered by his editor to work from home.


CURWOOD: Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, first appeared in South China four months ago and public health officials are still trying to contain the outbreak that has spread to more than a dozen countries.

The World Health Organization has issued an alert advising against all but essential travel to the diseased hotspots in Asia. Meanwhile, quarantines are becoming commonplace, as are face masks to lower the risk of exposure to SARS, but many workers are simply staying home. One of them is Matt Pottinger. He is a reporter based in Hong Kong for The Wall Street Journal.

Matt, as I understand it, your boss has told you to keep out of the office. Is that right?

POTTINGER: It's pretty much true. We've--Wall Street Journal is doing what a lot of companies here now are doing--asking staff to work from home if they can, simply as really a preemptive measure in case someone gets sick in the office. If that were to happen at the paper, we're worried that we would be put under some kind of a government-imposed quarantine, and that would make it a lot more difficult for us to actually publish the Asian edition.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, so far more than a dozen people in Hong Kong have died from SARS, and hundreds more have come down with the disease. But as I understand it, more than a third of these cases come from one apartment complex. Can you tell us about the Amoy Gardens and how it came to be the epicenter for Hong Kong for this disease?

POTTINGER: The doctors think now that it probably had something to do with the sewage system. In Hong Kong, most of the water and sewage pipes are actually run down the outsides of buildings. What some of the doctors are speculating now is that one patient who is very ill then infected the sewage system. So it's possible that there was a leak running down some of these pipes and that droplets were actually blown into the windows and homes of people running down that one side of the building.

CURWOOD: Now, how are the Hong Kong authorities dealing with these people, and how would you characterize the cooperation that they're getting?

POTTINGER: Well, it's been tough. On the day a quarantine or an isolation order was delivered to that building, people already knew it was coming, and a lot of people scattered. So the police had quite a job trying to track down those people. But they have since moved most of the residents in that block to a couple of camps, really sort of holiday resorts around the city where there is less of a risk of infection from the environment.

CURWOOD: What territory-wide measures has the government there taken to attempt to halt the spread of this disease?

POTTINGER: The government has had guidelines on hygiene--above all, asking people, even above wearing masks, they've really suggested washing hands religiously--using liquid soap, not touching your face. Because this virus that is believed to be causing it, the corona virus, is actually related to a virus that causes the common cold. And what we know is that the common cold is spread, probably just as often by hand to hand contact and then touching our faces, as it is through actually breathing in the virus.

CURWOOD: In your Wall Street Journal articles you write that many people in Hong Kong are wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from SARS. How difficult is it to get one right now?

POTTINGER: Well, Hong Kong made its name as a trade port, so there are a lot of savvy businessmen here who have been pretty quick. There were shortages in the initial days but now I'm seeing--I'm seeing plenty of masks on the street and in stores.

CURWOOD: Now tell me about these designer masks that have hit the streets there.

POTTINGER: Yeah, exactly. We're seeing--at first it was sort of these cheap paper surgical masks. Now, it sort of runs the gamut from heavy-duty N95 hospital masks to ones that have all kinds of colors and logos on them. Parents have been buying ones with teddy bears and Bambi.

CURWOOD: You can tell us the masks that you're wearing, Matt.

POTTINGER: [laughs] I've managed to score an N95, which, if worn tightly, is supposed to block out even particles the size of a virus. So I've gotten used to wearing it. I've learned the hard way that you should never be around places where they're preparing food when you're wearing it because the smell of the cooking permeates the mask and sort of stays there. It's pretty gross. It's kind of like breathing out of a McDonald's takeout bag for hours on end.

CURWOOD: The business of Hong Kong is business. I'm wondering what kind of toll this outbreak has taken on the economy there.

POTTINGER: It's taking a hard hit. People aren't going to restaurants. You don't see as many people out shopping. All kinds of events have been cancelled, sports events. The Rolling Stones had to cancel their concert. So, it's definitely hurting. The hotel rates are down, the airlines are bringing far fewer people in and are canceling flights. But that said, it's not just a phenomenon that's affecting Hong Kong at this point. Morgan Stanley's chief economist is actually going to advise clients that SARS may create a world recession. It's hurting trade, it's hurting finance, slowing down the rate that companies can find capital, and supply retail chain.

CURWOOD: Matt, what other precautions, other than wearing a mask and working from home, are you taking?

POTTINGER: Really just paying extra close attention to washing my hands. If my contact lenses start to dry out I have to resist the urge to reach up and adjust it. I've got to go scrub my hands first. I'm taking taxicabs instead of the subway. And something I've seen a lot of people doing now is avoid shaking hands. People are now sort of nodding their heads kind of in an abbreviated bow as a way of greeting people.

CURWOOD: Matt Pottinger is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Hong Kong. Thanks for joining us today.

POTTINGER: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And if you'd like to hear a longer version of this interview, please go to our website at loe.org. That's loe.org.

[MUSIC: Glen Velez “Bodhran” The Pulse of Life - Ellipsis Arts (1992)]



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