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.”