Karl Taro Greenfeld heard first about the vinegar. Just across the border from Hong Kong, markets were reporting a run on all kinds of vinegar as local Chinese sought the liquid in the belief that, when it was boiled, the fumes purified the air and warded off respiratory ailments. Karl, who edits the Asian edition of TIME and is based in Hong Kong, thought this was just another exotic story, the week's equivalent of Japanese schoolgirls selling their underwear or a neighborhood committee in East Java beheading a suspected witch. These dispatches, however, were the first media reports about the disease we now call SARS.
We've spent the past few weeks mostly immersed in reporting about Iraq, but we've also broken news on the SARS front, thanks to Karl and his team. Beijing correspondent Susan Jakes got a signed statement from a retired military-hospital surgeon that at just one hospital in the Chinese capital, there were 60 cases of SARS; the government was still insisting that there were only 19 in all of Beijing. We put that scoop up on our website, dealing the first serious blow to the Chinese Ministry of Health's credibility on SARS (TIME, April 21).
Huang Yong, who also works in the Beijing bureau, visited another hospital and discovered more than 100 SARS patients who weren't supposed to be there. Two weeks ago, he and Jakes reported that just before a delegation from the World Health Organization arrived at yet another hospital, 31 coughing staff members who had caught SARS from patients had been loaded into ambulances and driven around until the inspectors left (TIME, April 28). Hannah Beech, our Shanghai bureau chief, discovered evidence of how the disease was spreading through the interior of China, when she overheard meetings at which hospital staff members were instructed to hide the extent of the epidemic. Many others contributed to the extraordinary reporting effort, including Beijing bureau chief Matthew Forney, Shanghai bureau assistant Bu Hua and Neil Gough and Bryan Walsh in Hong Kong.
All this work has been done under very trying conditions, with our journalists at risk both reporting the story and working and living in Hong Kong. Karl was so concerned about how much time Huang Yong was spending in hospitals that he quarantined him for eight days. Some staff members have sent their families abroad for a few weeks so they at least get a break from the atmosphere of fear.
"For those of us living in Hong Kong," says Karl, "the disease has permeated our lives not just as a biological threat but, ubiquitously, as a psychological and spiritual malady. By now, much has been written about the disposable alcohol swabs we use obsessively to wipe our hands (I have a stack on my desk beside me), the surgical masks we wear and the public-health announcements advising against, among other things, handshakes. But the larger issue is the mental fatigue that attends living in a hot zone. The questions raised alter the rhythm of life itself. Do you dare dine communally, as is the custom here in Hong Kong? Is it safe to work out at the gym? If you do work out, is it advisable to take a shower in the clubhouse afterward? Do you kiss your children? The most quotidian of tasks require a moment of hesitation before you decide to take whatever real or imagined risk is implied.