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By Andrea Lo | April 13th, 2018

All Tea No Shade with Andrea Lo.

“Put your surgical mask back on,” my mom said to me on the Airport Express.

I was 12 years old and had just stepped off the plane from London to spend the Easter break back home in Hong Kong. It was 2003, and before smartphones and push notifications became A Thing, I had very limited information about what was happening at home. To say that I didn’t realize the gravity of the SARS outbreak would be an understatement, because I rode the entire journey on the Airport Express without the mask on (“It’s so uncomfortable! It doesn’t look cool!”).

The next few weeks were a confusing, and terrifying, time. The 2003 outbreak of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, began in China in late 2002 and spread to Hong Kong in February 2003. By mid-March, the disease had engulfed the city. On TV, new cases — and deaths — were being announced constantly.

Instead of hanging out in malls or doing whatever kids did while on break, we stayed home. Every time we did have to go outside, we would have to don a mask. It was like a ghost town. The city was empty. Where there were people, the atmosphere was tense, filled with fear and dread. When news of beloved Cantopop icon Leslie Cheung tragically committing suicide broke on April 1, it felt as if Hong Kong was about to collectively crumble.

By the time my three-week break came to an end, Hong Kong had become the global epicenter of SARS. A number of schools in the UK, like the one I went to, announced that students would have to undertake a 10-day quarantine outside of Hong Kong before going back to prevent potential outbreaks.

Many boarding school students in England without immediate family in the country had a guardian — someone to provide a place to stay, and to act as an emergency contact at a cost. My guardian was an American woman who flat out refused to have me. “What if she infects everyone in my house?” she said.

“You are going to the Isle of Wight,” announced my mom a few days before I was supposed to take off. 

People might know the idyllic isle off the southern coast of England for its music festivals and world-class sailing, but I will always think of it as “disease island.” In April, 137 Hong Kong students were shipped off to the island on a car ferry, to stay in a camp that would accommodate us for 10 days. We weren’t allowed to exit the coach for fresh air. On the ferry, out of fear (and habit), we all kept our masks on — until we were told to remove them “because it was creating panic.”

To 12-year-old me, the conditions on the camp on the Isle of Wight were unbearable. I stayed in a room with nine strangers, showered with cold water, and shared a bunk bed with a girl who cussed at me with Cantonese swear words I hadn’t even heard before in triad movies. It was easy to see that we were being treated like disease-ridden second-class citizens. With rumors flying around in the camp, and without my mask, I worried about catching SARS — but I worried even more for my family in Hong Kong.

Three days in, I got a call from two Hong Kong papers, who wanted me to comment on conditions on the island — my mom had passed them my number.

When their stories went to press, I was immediately expelled from the camp. In the end, I was able to join a few older girls at my school in London for what became a kind of extended vacation — we made the best out of it.

The situation in Hong Kong continued to deteriorate until May that year. Of the 8,098 cases of SARS worldwide, 1,755 were in Hong Kong. It resulted in the deaths of 299 people in the city, including six medical professionals who were infected from contact with patients.

But what I remembered the most from that time was how Hongkongers banded together to help each other out during a difficult time. We lived through 100 days of fear, the loss of hope, and grief. We took matters into our own hands, holding a middle finger up to the incompetence of the government, and the senseless jokes around the world about our obsession with surgical masks and hand sanitizers. We picked ourselves back up. Fifteen years on, we are okay.

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