Heroes of the SARS Wars

Asia's nightmare is SARS. Born amid the dense apartment blocks and crowded markets of southern China, the mysterious virus has spread across the world with air travelers, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing 700. But while SARS reminded us of globalization's dark side, the disease also spawned a new breed of Asian heroes.

The response to SARS has exploded the myth that Asians lack community spirit -- that they care only about their family and friends. It has brought out much of what is best in Asia, from the courage and compassion of its devoted doctors and nurses and the intensity of its scientists to the forcefulness of its best administrators. As the global medical community raced to join the fight, SARS also reminded Asia that it is not alone in the world.

A tall, feisty, 72-year-old Beijing doctor named Jiang Yanyong stands near the top of the pantheon of heroes. Jiang was almost singlehandedly responsible for breaking the wall of silence that allowed China to cover up the epidemic for months. The son of a rich banker, Jiang decided to become a doctor after watching an aunt die of tuberculosis. Imprisoned for two years during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang later became chief of surgery at Beijing No. 301 military hospital. There, he treated many of the wounded following the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. Outraged, he nevertheless kept quiet.

But when SARS came, Jiang refused to remain silent. Risking official condemnation and a possible jail sentence, Jiang wrote a letter to the Chinese media saying that the outbreak in Beijing was far worse than officials had acknowledged. Foreign media picked up the story, and the World Health Organization confirmed it. Within days, the wall of lies crumbled. On Apr. 20, in a humiliating climb-down for the Communist Party, China's Health Minister and Beijing's mayor were dismissed. President Hu Jintao vowed a new era of openness in fighting SARS. Yet Jiang is still not free to talk. Reached at the hospital where he works, the doctor said he could not speak to the media without prior approval of his hospital's Communist Party cell. The party withheld its O.K.

Officials in Singapore certainly made few friends during the early days of the epidemic. Almost immediately after three residents brought SARS to the city-state in March, after a shopping trip to Hong Kong, the administration of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong shut schools, canceled conventions, and enforced draconian quarantine measures on anyone with symptoms. Their movements were tracked with electronic ankle bracelets, surveillance cameras, and surprise inspections. But Singapore Inc.'s quick response and tough approach almost certainly saved lives.

Dr. Lim Suet Wun is Singapore's top SARS-buster. In March, Singapore wisely centralized all SARS cases at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where Lim, 43, is chief executive. He quickly gave the staff top-of-the-line protective equipment and had all newly admitted patients isolated and treated as if they might have SARS. Lim's leadership is a major reason Singapore escaped with relatively few cases. On May 6, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lifted its advisory against travel to Singapore.

But Asia owes its greatest debt to front-line medical staff. Even now, many doctors, nurses, paramedics, ambulance drivers, and cleaners go to work each day wondering if they are unwittingly signing their own death warrants. Yet, with a few exceptions, Asia's medical workers have braved endless fatigue and the odds of a fatal slip-up in hygiene to stay on their jobs.

Many have died doing their medical duty. Two casualties in Singapore were Ong Hok Su, 27, Lim's chief medical officer, and Hamidah Ismail, 44, a nurse. In Hong Kong, nurse Lau Wing-kai, 38, and a doctor who volunteered for the SARS ward, Tse Yuen-man, 35, both lost their lives after they tried to revive a patient. At an emotional funeral service, Lau's wife urged his colleagues not to be discouraged by his death but to fight on. Tse's pastor praised her as a "true daughter of Hong Kong." And Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announced that a $25 million training fund would be set up in Tse's memory.

Asia also has the global scientific community to thank for quickly mobilizing to understand the mysterious new virus. Microbiologists in Hong Kong were in the lead. University of Hong Kong doctors such as Malik Peiris and K.Y. Yuen worked almost around the clock and were the first to identify the SARS bug as a corona virus. They collaborated with Canadian researchers, who were the first to map the corona virus gene. Dr. David Ho, a New York pioneer in developing the cocktail of drugs used to fight AIDS, has traveled repeatedly to Hong Kong to work on treatments for SARS.

The world also owes a debt to Dr. Carlo Urbani, the WHO's Hanoi representative. Colleagues called Urbani, 46, "Dr. Worm" because of his fascination with parasites. The father of three could have stayed in his office when he heard about unusual symptoms in a patient who turned out to be Vietnam's first SARS victim. Instead, he tried to treat the patient, who later died. The Italian doctor was the first to identify the new disease, and he used his personal ties with Vietnamese officials to see that dramatic quarantine measures were taken to keep it from spreading.

On Mar. 29, Urbani died in a Bangkok hospital, felled by the virus he had hunted down. "Hanoi should be forever grateful to this man," says Jordan Ryan, the U.N.'s resident coordinator in Hanoi and a friend of Urbani's. "He would be the last person to call himself a hero, but his dedication was truly extraordinary."

There is plenty of scope for gratitude. The common fight against SARS has brought home to people in affected areas the realization that they are part of something larger -- part of local, national, and global communities that have pulled together in awe-inspiring ways over the past few months. As the world slowly beats back the disease, it should be a time for reflection -- and renewed appreciation for those who made sacrifices. Fear has reminded us what we should never have forgotten: Never again will we take this web of doctors and nurses, janitors and hospital managers, lab technicians and researchers for granted.

By Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong, with Dexter Roberts in Beijing and Michael Shari in Singapore

— With assistance by Dexter Roberts, and Michael Shari

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