In November 2002, after a spate of very strange pneumonia-like illnesses and deaths, China discovered that a new and deadly virus had been able to jump species and had infected humans, using them as a vector for inter-human transfer.  Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was new and serious, and to avoid its spread, China quickly and strictly quarantined the country, especially major population centers. 

In May 2003, as China was beginning to relax the quarantine in some areas, I went there to deliver a faculty training course at Xi’an Jiaotong University. I was able to enter China as a “necessary worker” under the auspices of one of China’s top nine scientific universities. 

My rerouted flight from Tokyo to Shanghai avoided Beijing, still under full quarantine.  From Tokyo to Xi’an, with an overnight layover in Shanghai, at every door (even the taxis) my temperature was taken — 23 times by every imaginable device, from nasal thermometers to full infrared body scans.  Prior to exiting the plane in Shanghai, hazmat-suited officials took every passenger’s temperature, removed three passengers for further examination, and sprayed disinfectant throughout the plane. 

On arrival in Xi’an, I was whisked to a major hospital, given a full physical exam including blood tests, issued a thermometer and told to record and report my temperature three times daily, and asked to report to the doctor every third day. I was assigned a room in the foreign teachers’ guesthouse, issued masks, and given a photo ID in order to pass from the guest house to the main campus, across a guarded bridge over a vehicle-free eight lane street.

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Nothing was moving. No cars, no buses, no bicycles, no three-wheeled carriers, no motorcycles. No people…or very few, and they wore masks, including a few wearing bra cups. 

I taught my seminar to faculty members suitably masked and with ID permits. The 30,000 masked resident students remained on campus, a high chain link fence around the perimeter with occasional guards ensuring no climb-overs.

Within about three weeks of my arrival, the quarantine in Xi’an was lifted. Eight people in well over 10 million in the city had died; several hundred had been infected. But their quarantine had been enacted very early, and it was tight and effective. 

Within days, people were moving, buses were running half full, taxis were racing around, and within a week or so, everything seemed to be back to “normal,” but warily and mostly masked. Then came soap and water in public bathrooms, laws to not spit on the sidewalk and trash cans were installed along busy streets. Sanitation improved on both the personal and public levels.

Here in the U.S., we paid scant attention to SARS, a disease that never really got out of China because that quarantine was effective. A Chinese surgeon friend told me that in the case of such diseases and epidemics, strict quarantines are the only way to stop them.

Perhaps it’s that experience with SARS in China and its not reaching the U.S. to any serious degree that led US officials to ignore or not take seriously those early announcements of a dangerous disease. That announcement was made at the end of December, and the first reports in English began appearing in the international press.

U.S. officials blame China for withholding information, but I’ve worked many years in China and my understanding of Chinese culture tells me that the caution to be correct before speaking is very strong.  The lag of six days between discovery of this virus and announcing it is not very long, certainly not as long as the more than two months it took American officials to consider that the U.S. would also be infected and affected by COVID-19. And that does not include the misinformation campaign that followed.

And, while SARS (and MERS, EBOLA, VIKA, HANTA, and other viruses) are not so serious in the U.S., COVID-19 is stealthy, nasty, and easily spread from human to human. We make ideal vectors: plenty of mucous, careless habits, disobedient, independent…and many seem to think they are immune or otherwise won’t or can’t be infected with this very smart blob of genetic material whose only job is to replicate, replicate, mutate, replicate, and replicate…all the while flying merrily from one human vector’s sneeze to the next. 

Some view the Earth as GAIA…a single organism; so, it’s interesting to consider whether this coronavirus and its mutant glory may be GAIA’s attempt to slow down the destruction being wrought by humans.  Since February, the atmosphere has been noticeably freer of pollutants, the earth’s mantle has stopped vibrating so much, the pollution flowing into rivers and oceans has decreased, and the planet is just quieter and healthier.

Wild boars wander the streets of Barcelona, mountain lions in downtown Santiago, and humans are hanging out indoors, at home, or barely moving with masks and social distance.

What do we miss? A lot. Humans are gregarious…we like groups, doing things together, touching…. but those are off-limits. And despite what some people say are “draconian” measures to limit their freedom, not to do so is risking our lives and community. 

Although a small percentage die, those could include you and me. So, speaking from a bit of experience with epidemics and pandemics, I ask everyone to adhere to the guidelines, and be strict with yourself. Let’s take care of ourselves and each other. 

As nearly as I can tell, this virus is here to stay. It’s going to be like the “flu” …maybe a vaccine will stop it, maybe some medication will mitigate the seriousness of the effects, or maybe not.

And, if this is GAIA’s idea, we had better consider the benefits of quarantine and the new ways of functioning…we need to and can change our ways of being, working, doing.

Anne Bliss survived SARS and so far has avoided COVID-19. She lives in Boulder.