Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Encountering the Other: SARS, Public Health, and Race Relations

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Encountering the Other: SARS, Public Health, and Race Relations

Article excerpt

In spring 2003, when scientists were scrambling to search for the causative pathogen and mode of transmission of SARS, the public was tormented with anxiety and fear which in some cases fermented xenophobia and created racial and ethnic tension.

On an MIT website, an insidious April fool's hoax surfaced, warning of infected employees at a restaurant in Boston's Chinatown. The rumor spread quickly by mouth and email that there was widespread contagion in the area. Meanwhile, in New York City, a healthy Vietnamese owner of a Chinese restaurant was bombarded with consolatory phone calls, online postings, and the local newsprint about his own death caused by SARS. Needless to say, these hoaxes and rumors swirled and swept like hurricanes; as a result, businesses in both communities suffered a tremendous blow from the "unfounded blather" (Schram). Across the nation, anxiety and fear, generated by the news about the invisible and indeterminate contagion of the epidemic, were visible on the streets and corners of Chinatown communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia as well as in Boston and New York. Restaurants lost their clientele, and tourists stayed shy of the districts. Wedding banquets were cancelled, and the crowded Chinatown streets suddenly appeared deserted (Hopkins). As David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate, commented in The Wall Street Journal on April 28, "Just as the media recently gave us a . . . particularly intimate experience of war, we're now getting a new and particularly fearsome experience of a public-health crisis with SARS - in which a media-transmitted epidemic of concern for personal safety outpaces the risk to public health of the actual virus" (qtd. in Pierce 20).

Needless to say, the public soon discovered that the "epidemic" in those areas had been a hoax, and the businesses slowly resumed their former momentum. However, the surge of racial and ethnic discrimination in the community in response to the SARS scare is worth our close attention.

What Judy Collins of Massachusetts had experienced during the SARS scare was just this kind of discrimination. Judy and her husband, Dick, went to Guangzhou, China, in March when the news about the mysterious disease had just broken out. Having previously adopted two girls from China - eight-year-old Brittany and five-year-old Madison - the Collins went there again to bring back a third child, this time a two-year-old boy, Sean. When Judy and Dick were there, the American consulate had dismissed all nonessential personnel in response to SARS, but it remained open for adoptions. Judy stayed alert. Even though she knew that the place where Sean came from had no SARS cases, she kept herself informed by calling epidemiologists, checking the Center for Disease Control's website, and monitoring everyone for any SARS symptoms. When they returned to Massachusetts, however, the local community panicked. The school requested their children be kept home for ten days though they had no symptoms at all. Similarly, Dick developed a rash after sitting in their hot tub; despite the fact that a rash is not one of the primary symptoms of SARS, his physician refused to treat him and sent him instead to the emergency room where he had to enter through a private door. The neighbors came to visit the new child, but they stopped at the end of the driveway, inquiring if everyone in the family was all right. No one in Judy's family got SARS; nevertheless, people feared they carried the disease because of their recent trip to China and their adopted children (Pierce 21-22).

The level of anxiety was nearly tangible. In Great Britain, SARS was referred to as "the next AIDS" in newspapers, though the claim was later proven to be unfounded. In fact, the 7,000 probable cases worldwide by early May paled in comparison to the two million victims of tuberculosis each year. SARS traveled fast, but fear traveled even faster. The widely-circulated stories made it seem as if people in the North American Asian communities were carriers of the disease even though SARS is not a disease of ethnicity. …

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