Psychology of SARS in China

by Kim Petersen

Dissident Voice

May 14, 2003


The battle against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is still being waged in China. It has exposed frailty in the much-ballyhooed economic system as well as the inadequacy of rural health care. However, according to the China Daily there has been an accelerating decline in the number of SARS patients since a peak on 28 April. (1) This is welcome news for a country that has been hard-hit financially by the disease outbreak. To what extent is moot at present. Kevin Rollins, chief operating officer of Dell, offered: “While SARS was a serious issue for humanity, it was a little 'overplayed' in terms of its impact on business.” Nonetheless, at least psychologically, SARS is considered responsible for some uncertainty in the Chinese and Asian Pacific markets. (2)


These psychological ramifications of SARS are being felt, so much so that a new psychological diagnosis has been coined: SARSphobia. The lack of treatment for SARS has left some Chinese feeling “scared, sleepless, nervous and depressed because of anxiety.” Those people with “weak characters” are unable to cope with reality of SARS. Stories abound of people unsettled by SARS. There are suicides and patients who abandoned hospitals triggering a spread of the disease. One seemingly apocryphal media account tells of a hapless woman who in an effort to decontaminate what she feared were SARS-tainted bills, placed 3000 yuan (US$660) in her microwave and zapped her currency useless. One gauge of the extent of the paranoia was a survey of over 46,000 people, which reported about 37 percent feeling negative because of SARS. Approximately 8.5 percent feel extremely frightened almost beyond control. A more rational 47 percent think there is no need to panic. Psychologist Sun Shijin remarked, "People do not always use their common sense to judge the situation or level of danger, sometimes they are over-emotional when facing danger." (3)


Given the psychological breakdown in individuals, it is not unsurprising that people are becoming more ill at ease. This unease has manifested itself in societal disturbances. Quarantine facilities been attacked and damaged by choleric villagers. Even highway connections between rural villages and SARS epicenter Beijing and Tianjin have been severed in fear of SARS. (4)


The old Chinese tradition of bowing is even making a comeback because of SARS. In some northern areas hand shaking has gone by the wayside in a reflection of increased awareness of hygiene among Chinese.


Another strange twist is the appearance of an endangered salamander species on the menu to encourage a hoped-for increase in lagging sales at one restaurant in southern Guangzhou province. Said a manager: “We have just received our license to serve salamanders, so we thought an exotic dish would bring back diners. But no one has shown any interest.” That is probably due to the salamanders being farm-raised “maimed” specimens selling for a rather hefty 600 yuan (US$72) per 500 grams. According to traditional Chinese medicine, salamander is a kind of “aquatic ginseng.” (5) Unfortunately it is just this kind of activity that may have led to the SARS corona virus crossing over to humans.


It is theorized that the SARS virus has been brewing for eons. Sanjay Kapil, a clinical virologist at Kansas State University, stated: "We know now this virus may have evolved in something like a shrimp or a snake but has managed to put together pieces of a lot of viruses over millions of years." One hypothesized mechanism of viral transfer is “human interference.”


"What I mean by human interference is that we know from expert biologists that any time a new virus comes through into human populations, such as AIDS and West Nile, they evolved in the forest. So when we start eating things like snakes and shrimp, we should not. Let the wildlife alone. Do not mess with it. So there is a reason why these viruses are evolving in certain parts of the world." (6)


Wild salamanders and many other wild dishes on offer in China might possibly be the link for the introduction of deadly viruses to humans. Dr. Kapil considered it no quirk of nature that SARS arose in China. One virus-killing procedure is to cook food at over 56º C (132.8º F). (7) Ominously for salamander diners in Guangzhou their exotic dish is prepared raw.


Even house pets are afflicted by the SARS epidemic. Dogs and cats in infected households have been ordered rounded up and put down. This is a precautionary measure despite there being no evidence of SARS being transmitted from pets to humans. (8)


China has been a source of a number of pandemics over the years. Oftener cited in the etiology of SARS than the Consumption Theory is the Cohabitation Theory. Many scientists have warned of the dangers posed by the close proximity in which many animals and humans live in China. The exact mechanism that accounts for SARS is as yet unaccounted for but it would seem prudent to establish preventative measures to thwart the emergence of another pathogen.


Bio-ethicist Ezekial J Emanuel suggested:


* an improved early warning system to enable rapid response and quarantine measures,


* separation of animal species,


* limiting slaughter of animals to processing plants, and better,


* more spacious housing with improved ventilation and bird-free  (9)


In light of Dr. Kapil’s caveat, curtailed consumption of wild, exotic species unsterilized in the cooking process would seem another reasonable prophylactic measure.


Meanwhile Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization cautions that China is not out of the woods yet. "It is too early to state that the epidemic is tailing down. And even if it is tailing down, SARS is not going to disappear quickly." (10)


Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. He can be contacted at: kotto2001@hotmail.com




(1) Xinhua, “SARS cases on Chinese mainland decline faster,” China Daily, 12 May 2003: http://www1.chinadaily.com.cn/highlights/doc/2003-05-12/114795.html


(2) Greg Fawson and Matt Godfrey, “Is SARS really affecting the DRAM market?” Semiconductor Business News, 6 May 2003: http://www.siliconstrategies.com/markets/business/china/OEG20030506S0016


(3) Zhang Jun, Contagious Panic,” Shanghai Star, 8 May 2003: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/star/2003/0508/fo4-1.html


(4) Gao Erqiang, Strange Tales of SARS, Shanghai Star, 8 May 2003: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/star/2003/0508/fo4-2.html


(5) “Chinese Restaurateurs Serve Endangered Salamanders to fight SARS effect on profits,” South China Morning Post, 7 May 2003. Available on Seafood.com News website: http://www.seafood.com/news/current/96495.html#


(6) Matt Moldine, “Expert: Meddling may have let SARS 'jump' from wildlife,” Topeka Capital-Journal, 29 April 2003: http://www.cjonline.com/stories/042903/kan_sars.shtml


(7) Ibid


(8) “Sars: China 'culls' pets,” PlanetSave Network, 30 April 2003: http://www.planetsave.com/ViewStory.asp?ID=3908


(9) Ezekial J Emanuel, “Preventing the Next SARS,” NY Times, 12 May 2003: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/12/opinion/12EMAN.html?th


(10) Reuters, “WHO Says SARS Epidemic Not Yet Declining in China,” Yahoo! News, 13 May 2003: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=585&ncid=585&e=1&u=/nm/20030513/sc_nm/sars_china_who_dc




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