As Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagion has us all reflecting on the pandemics of the past – or even worse, those of the future – TIME senior writer Bryan Walsh remembers his time in a panicked Hong Kong during the SARS scare of 2003, an epidemic that killed nearly 300 people.
“It was the photographer who got me worried. We’d met in the waiting room at Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital—there to interview the local scientists who had identified the virus causing SARS—and he was regaling me with tales of his time dodging Taliban bullets. But when we walked into the laboratory, the hardened war photographer started getting nervous. Was there virus on the walls, on the seat, in the air? Was it safe here? Were we all going to die?
That’s how the staff of TIME in Hong Kong was thinking in those first few weeks of the SARS outbreak in the spring of 2003, when our city—the home base for TIME’s Asia edition—became ground zero for the first new infectious disease of the 21st century. Our editor Karl Greenfeld—who would go onto write a book on SARS called China Syndrome—became obsessed with the virus, and when your boss becomes obsessed with something, it behooves you to become obsessed it, too.
So we found ourselves wearing surgical masks around the office—which turned edit meetings into charade sessions—and stocking up on disinfectant. Expats who could afford to their send families away did so. Hong Kong became a ghost city, the usually thronged airport empty. The Rolling Stones cancelled on us, and so did DJ Shadow. On the plus side, you could get a table at any restaurant in the city, and I got my landlord to cut my rent by 50%. Outbreak discount.
Personally, I loved SARS. It’s still the most fun I ever had as a journalist—tracking outbreaks and peering at the virus through electron microscopes. That reporting made me a science writer—and it also helped me in the office’s daily pools, when we’d bet on how many new SARS cases would be announced each evening. Price is Right-style—nearest to the mark without going over.
Of course, it turned out the masks wouldn’t have stopped a cold—once you’ve worn them for an hour or so, they become so moist that any microbe can slip through the barrier. But maybe they helped us feel a bit safer. TIME did amazing work during SARS—our Beijing reporters Susan Jakes and Matthew Forney discovered that China was covering up its SARS cases. But if things had gotten really bad—as bad as they do in the movie Contagion—we would have been reporting our own obituaries.”
On a normal day, we value heroism because it is uncommon. On Sept. 11, we valued heroism because it was everywhere.” — “If You Want To Humble An Empire,” September 14, 2001
Terror on this scale is meant to wreck the way we live our lives – make us flinch when a siren sounds, jump when a door slams and think twice before deciding whether we really have to take a plane. If we falter, they win, even if they never plant another bomb.” — “Mourning in America,” September 24, 2001
There’s something to be said for an 88-year-old with a Tumblr account.
Since 1923, TIME has reported the world’s history and somewhere along the way, we became a part of it. TIME co-founder Henry Luce once said, “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.” Well, we created this Tumblr to show you just how intertwined to that world’s society – past and present – TIME has actually become.
Thousands of icons have appeared between our signature red border, and while we’ll pull our vintage issues out of the archives for display, we also hope to bring you the story behind their stories. From letters to the editors signed by presidents, to our staff’s own compelling account of the work we’ve become so proud of, we’d like to show you the other side of TIME magazine. Our side.
This is our scrapbook, of sorts, and we can’t wait to share it with you.
- The editors
-Zsa Zsa Gabor, in a letter to the editors in response to this story
Washington, D.C., 1969
In 1974, the People Page was one of TIME’s best read. Someone proposed spinning it off into a magazine of its own. Hence, People magazine. The birth of personality journalism evolved from the pages of TIME.
I had this nightmare last night that TIME magazine put me on their cover as the new face of feminism. Oh the pressure.” —- Ally McBeal,”Love Unlimited,” Jan. 18, 1999