As the mainstream media cranks up its coverage of the Ebola virus “outbreak,” I can’t help but recognize some familiar elements at play. We have been here before a few times.
My trip to Hong Kong at the height of the 2003 SARS pandemonium was undoubtedly taken under very serious pretenses. Much to the begging of my family to not go on the trip, with my mother going as far as contacting a cousin who was living in Hong Kong at the time, I went on the trip. The fear of contracting the SARS virus was so prevalent that commercial airplanes were literally flying empty. This subsequently led to many carriers halting service to affected areas. Cathay Pacific, for very obvious reasons, hung on and ultimately provided me the opportunity to go to Hong Kong myself. I felt compelled to go.
Surely enough, my flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in 2003, was predictably empty. It felt odd knowing that I was heading towards the very destination where most people did not want to go. After I checked into my hotel, I immediately headed to the city to commence my investigation. On the train ride to Kowloon, I saw some people wearing face masks, but the majority were not. I was a bit confused, because this is consistent with what I had seen earlier at the airport, but not with what I had seen with the mainstream media’s coverage of Hong Kong’s SARS situation in the previous months. I had expected to see hordes of people wearing face masks to protect themselves from getting infected with SARS. That expectation was fueled by images from news articles and television coverage of the “situation in Hong Kong.”
I walked around in Kowloon for quite some time, hoping to find something to write about – but, nothing. The streets of Kowloon on that particular day in 2003 seemed like an ordinary day. There was no chaos to report. The sense of panic in the streets or fear was simply not at play. It looked like everyone was going about their day in a business-as-usual kind of way. The more I walked, the more I felt comfortable. Before long, I was walking around as if I was actually headed somewhere specific. Whatever apprehension I had prior to my trip because of what had been reported in the mainstream media, had been quelled. What was all the fuss about? Why were people so afraid to come to Hong Kong?
Clearly, that is what had been happening with the global media’s treatment of SARS. Opportunistic journalists trying to beef-up coverage of a situation that was well under control by the Hong Kong authorities then passed on whatever information they’ve scoured to their overzealous editors, who then further sensationalized these materials and instilled fear among the masses. Yes, there were people dying from SARS, but as far as Hong Kong being an affected area, there was no reason to declare pandemonium.
I had wandered around the city so long that I eventually became hungry. Hong Kong is predominately a Mandarin-speaking destination and as big of a cosmopolitan that it is, communicating in a language other than Mandarin can be a challenge. I began to look for a restaurant that had an English menu. I can’t remember how many times I walked into a restaurant and said, “English menu?” only to be turned away. I was adamant about seeing a menu in English, because I have had experiences in China where I ordered a dish that I did not end up eating.