Jeremy Laurance: Dispatch from a frightened city in quarantine

I took a cab in Hong Kong to Amoy Gardens and the driver dropped me 200 yards short ? he would go no nearer

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Should I sleep with my wife? That was one question I pondered on the 16-hour flight home from Hong Kong last weekend. More important – though not, perhaps, to her – should I hug my children? And what about friends, neighbours, colleagues? Should I expose them to the risk, no matter how small, of catching a lethal disease?

Should I sleep with my wife? That was one question I pondered on the 16-hour flight home from Hong Kong last weekend. More important – though not, perhaps, to her – should I hug my children? And what about friends, neighbours, colleagues? Should I expose them to the risk, no matter how small, of catching a lethal disease?

It seemed to me disappearingly unlikely that during a week spent investigating the outbreak of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in Hong Kong I could have contracted a disease that had by then infected a few hundred people in a population of 6.7 million.

On the other hand I had stayed in the hotel – the Metropole – where it all began, visited the housing estate, Amoy Gardens, where almost 300 people have been infected, and travelled to "ground zero", the city of Guangzhou in mainland China, which is said to be where Sars originated.

So how dangerous is Sars? There are no clear answers to that question. But by the end of the week I had learnt something about fear.

I chose to stay at the Metropole on the principle that the safest airline to fly with is the one that has just had an accident. As one of only a handful of guests, I had impeccable service – would you expect to be addressed by name in a 487-room hotel? – and never had to wait for the lift. But when the staff all donned masks on the third day of my stay, as the World Health Organisation advised against travel to the city, I suddenly wondered if I was being stupid.

I had watched from the hotel window at breakfast each morning, the crowds on Waterloo Road visibly thinning as people stayed at home. I took a cab to Amoy Gardens and the driver dropped me 200 yards short – he would go no nearer. Walking round the building, observing the officials – clad from head to toe in white coats, rubber gloves, hats and masks – imposing the quarantine order, I felt something drip on my head. It was probably condensation from an air-conditioning unit, but leaking pipes are thought to be one way the virus could have spread. Again, I felt foolishly reckless.

As I walked away, I found myself involuntarily wiping my hand across my mouth – the humidity was 90 per cent – and then cursed myself for doing so. The Hong Kong health department had warned to avoid touching surfaces and to wash frequently in liquid soap. It is remarkably difficult to avoid touching your mouth. I discovered that I touch my mouth all the time.

People differed in the way they coped. Many, especially expatriates, dismissed the threat. I watched a crowd of rugby supporters spilling out of a bar on Hong Kong Island sneezing theatrically in the street as masked Chinese walked solemnly by. But many others decided to flee the city, including the French jockey Eric St Martin, who said: "My children cannot go to school, they cannot play outside. What happens if this gets worse and worse? Do we die here?"

The Chinese, who have nowhere to flee, did what they could to protect themselves. I saw a masked woman in a shopping centre extract a tissue from her bag before opening a door so she would not have to touch it. But another, bare-faced, told me she did not bother with a mask because "when my time comes, it will come".

My confidence in my own immunity was most seriously tested when I visited the Prince of Wales Hospital, where more than 100 medical staff have gone down with the illness. Tom Buckley, an intensive care specialist, handed me a high-tech N95 mask and took me outside, where we sat six feet apart on a bench while we talked.

He was frightened, and I quickly understood why. When a mystery virus cuts down 100 of your colleagues despite everything they can do to protect themselves, you would be. He had slept on the floor of his office for the first week of the outbreak, rather than risk taking the virus home to his family. When I met him he was still taking elaborate precautions – sleeping in a separate room from his wife, using separate utensils, avoiding all physical contact – to protect them. Next day, for the first time, I donned the mask Dr Buckley had given me on the train to Guangzhou.

People have pointed out that the death rate from Sars, at 2-4 per cent, is no worse than the death rate for flu, and that the panic has been overdone. But this is much nastier than flu – in Hong Kong, at least (in some other countries it appears to have been less toxic). The first victims spent three weeks in hospital – an astonishing length of time in the modern era. Around one in five were in intensive care, and half of those required artificial ventilation.

Yesterday there were still 121 people in intensive care, putting an immense strain on the health service. The long-term outcome for these patients is not known. Sars is said to be highly contagious but this, too, varies. The Hong Kong health department says the transmission rate is only 5 per cent for household contacts of someone infected. But there appear to be a few individuals who are "super-spreaders", who have infected scores of individuals and transmitted the infection round the world.

The chances of having had contact with a super-spreader must be less than one in a million. In two days, I will know I am in the clear. Then, maybe, my 14-year-old daughter will kiss me again. But in Hong Kong it will be a long time before the fear subsides.

j.laurance@independent.co.uk

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