COVID-19: Our SARS Moment
“We are in serious trouble.”
That was my 19 year old son’s reaction to the news of Coronavirus (COVID-19) as it metastasized across every news channel on TV.
I asked what he meant and he told me with great assurance (ah, the wisdom that one has at 19!) that there was no way that average Americans would deal the virus as seriously as the average Taiwanese.
For background, we lived in Taiwan from 2003 to 2010, a period which started with the SARS epidemic and was then punctuated with various serious infections like Bird and Swine Flus. My son actually contracted a mild case of Swine Flu and scored a ride in an ambulance (which excited him greatly at the time). My son spent a number of his formative years in Taiwan and if you have ever spent time there, it is hard not to like the place, the people and the food.
I can see why my son felt the way he did. We lived in Taipei, the capital city. In general, the attitude towards hygiene (washing hands, wearing masks, mindful of coughs and sneezes, spot temperature checks), avoiding public gatherings and particularly self-quarantine (staying out of the office with the support of management) was broadly appreciated and well practiced.
But, the 2000’s did not represent my first exposure to Taiwan. I had lived in Taipei briefly as a student and in the late 80s/early 90s for work. While the Taiwanese always thought they were several cuts above of their counterparts in Hong Kong and China, the SARS epidemic landed on an island ill prepared. In the early days, there was panic and misinformation. Prior to SARS, one went to work no matter how badly one felt and there was a certain pride in toughing things out. At one point in my mid 20s, I ended up with a mild case of pneumonia and the feedback from the office was nothing short of appreciation that I had toughed out a couple of assignments before collapsing. The comments were along the lines of: “now you are one of us.” Facemasks were for the two stroke scooters that clogged the streets with visible clouds of exhaust. And the idea of covering a cough or sneeze or not spitting on the sidewalk at will was seen as representing a bit of a pretentious attitude. Strangely though, wiping out a bowl and rubbing down the chopsticks at a restaurant before the food arrived was always just a thing one did. Same with taking off your shoes before entering a home.
But all that changed when Taiwan experienced its SARS moment. And very quickly. Every store, restaurant, office, or bank stationed a person out front armed with an infrared thermometer pointed at your forehead. Every airport installed infrared cameras to look for hot spots on arriving passengers. Hand sanitizers bloomed at nearly every corner. And all of the sudden, hard driving bosses and striving co-workers became very supportive of people donning a mask and saying that they didn’t feel like it was such a good idea to be in the office. As the manager of a Securities Firm, we arranged with our parent bank to swap and park staff at different offices to ensure that an outbreak at one office would not bring down the whole business.
In short, people dealt with a bad situation. Daily life continued, a bit under siege at first, and then things returned to normal after the infections peaked. But what didn’t change was the new attitude towards hygiene. Being purposely dirty was not the norm before SARS but it became absolutely unacceptable after SARS. And that is what my son noticed in Taiwan but found lacking in California today.
The lessons we should and will learn from the Coronavirus are:
1. this is not the last time we will have to deal with a fast moving, novel virus
2. as individuals, we need to take person responsibility (flu shots, hygiene, sensible precautions, checking in on those who are vulnerable)
3. as a country, we should look to fix any systematic obstacles (paid leave, health insurance, vaccine supplies, test supplies)
Two examples of non solutions/things we shouldn’t learn:
1. Closing the border.
The world benefits far too much from the free movement of people, goods, ideas and capital to seriously consider the alternative. Checking people carefully at the border is sensible. Putting them in quarantine may be a necessary option. But closing the border to target nationalities is counterproductive. These germs will happily travel with any passport holder. Just ask the Iranians.
2. Suspending payroll tax (FICA).
I don’t like the bite it takes out of my paychecks any more than the next person. But the tax rate has nothing to do with the ability of a new virus to mutate across the animal-human barrier. Concentrate on the plight of hourly workers or uninsured patients to have the most useful impact.
There are more Coronavirus-like outbreaks in our future. People will get infected, some will get very sick and some will even die of the virus or its immediate complications. But, unlike my son, I think Americans will emerge from this episode a bit stronger and wiser. SARS is still seen as something that was “over there” from the American perspective. Even in Taiwan, it was initially viewed as something that was “over on the Mainland”. Now we have had our SARS moment. If the subways are wiped down a bit more often and people are a bit more careful about washing hands and we find ways to ensure workers are not disadvantaged by taking suitable precautions, there might actually be a silver lining here.