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SARS: Change for the Better among Chinese

Posted May. 09, 2003 21:48,   


Due to the rapid spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory System), the lifestyle of the Chinese people has changed greatly. While it is causing a downgrading of national credit and economic loss, it also is working in positive aspects to create a more healthy society for the emerging economic powerhouse.

A Chinese daily, partially owned by the government, surveyed 134 citizens in Beijing, Shanghai and Kwangjeowoo on May 8 regarding changes in lifestyles due to SARS. The results show that “SARS has brought more fundamental and long-term changes to China than changes in U.S. caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

Leaving jobs and avoiding personal relations

After the Chinese government publicly announced on April 20 the state of SARS in Beijing, only 54% of Beijing citizens normally went about their business. 2% resigned from their jobs and 7% moved to rural areas or even other countries where the SARS risk was minimal. The rest of those surveyed took leaves of absence without notice. 32% of workers refused to take any business trips.

The research showed that SARS truly paralyzed workplace operations in many areas.

The avoidance of personal relations was a serious issue brought up in the survey. People usually kept a distance of over 1 meter when they talked to others. Clerks who worked in banks and stores were accused of undue rudeness because they hesitated to talk with customers or didn`t respond to customers in their usual friendly manner.

The research also showed that 70% of those surveyed stopped visiting relatives or friends. 47% reportedly refused to kiss or hug their girlfriends or boyfriends. 50% people didn`t shake hands with each other; instead, they chose the more traditional bow. People used their own personal dishes during meals, and married couples didn`t even share their bed with each other. All this, and indirect contact using phone calls, telex, or email was the preferred method of communicating.

Turning point for restoring social order

As bars, karaoke rooms, PC cafes, hotels, and restaurants are closed, time with the family has increased and the habit of going to bed and waking up early has also become the norm due to the sheer lack of things to do in the evening.

According to Sicheonggu court in Beijing, family disputes have seen a decrease. Divorce suits have also lulled by almost half from the end of last month compared to the previous month, which recorded 70 cases on average per week. General health as well, has seen a drastic improvement on the streets as saliva spitters are nowhere to be seen. House and street cleaning have also seen an increase and have become more generalized around the city.

Also, the tendency towards materialism and individualism that have ruled Chinese society for the past 20 years is showing signs of a slight change.

The idea that China needs to maintain safety in their communities, corresponding to environmental standards set forth by the World Health Organization (WHO) has become more prevalent, as the Chinese economy becomes more globalized through its World Trade Organization (WTO) membership.

Also, a community spirit in which more value is placed on the government and its citizens, with more cooperation between those in China, rather than that of individualism, has taken root in the country.

“I don`t know how long such a sense of community will last among the Chinese,” said Dr. Wianwe, a sociology professor in the U.S. “One thing is clear though; the effect of SARS has been a turning point in the process of modernizing China.”

Yoo-Sung Hwang yshwang@donga.com