May 9, 2003

So you think SARS is funny?

I just had a phone conversation with my brother back home in Singapore. He's having his midterms now, and for two days in a row, he's had to sit in a separate room to take his exams.

No, he doesn't have SARS; it's just that whenever they take his temperature, the thermometer registers a fever. My brother naturally has a pretty high temperature. But the university officials isolated him, "just in case."

Then there's my friend who's in med school. "I just started the elementary clinical course today, and I think it'll be really sucky [because] we can't go into the wards," she e-mailed me. "I've no idea how we're gonna learn anything by having tutorials in [classrooms]."

It's not just the university that's extra careful, of course. Singapore is a land of paranoia, especially right now. The government recently spent six million bucks equipping every child from kindergarten to grade 12 with a thermometer. They're supposed to take their temperatures twice a day, recording them in a little book for their teachers to check. That's ten minutes and six million dollars less to spend on maintaining our world-topping math and science scores!

As in every crisis, an ugly side of society has emerged. For instance, some cab drivers refuse to stop for nurses, scared that the SARS germ might be lurking in the folds of their starched white uniforms. But really, can you blame them? "If I were a taxi driver, I would think twice about taking passengers to and from hospitals," my dad said, and he's a doctor himself.

Some manifestations of paranoia are funny, though. A friend was out shopping, and while waiting in line for a dressing room, she developed a tickle in her throat and started coughing. Like magic, simultaneously everyone else in line seemed to realize that there was some darling little dress across the room that they just had to look at, never mind that they'd been waiting hours for the dressing room. My friend is definitely going to try pulling that one again.

Despite the paranoia, the situation in Singapore isn't that bad, not as bad as it is in Hong Kong. Still, my parents don't want me home for summer. I must be one of the few kids whose parents don't want them home for summer.

And this is why I got so mad when I was walking up South University Avenue, behind a quartet of people, and one of them started coughing. "Oh no, I have SARS!" she cried dramatically.

"Are you sure?" laughed her friends.

"Yes, I'm coughing [coughs enthusiastically], and I have trouble breathing."

"That's because you smoke, silly!"

"Oh, you mean it's the smoking?" [Raucous laughter all around.]

I wanted to run up to her and shove a cigarette down her throat and go: "You think SARS is funny, but because of it I can't go home, and I can't see my friends and my mommy and my daddy and my brother and my terrapin Mr. Bogart. SARS isn't a joke, dammit!" But I didn't do that, of course; I just shrugged and wished a plague upon her house.

I'm not angry at her anymore. Just because something is serious doesn't mean you shouldn't joke about it. Everyone needs to laugh now and then. God knows, I've joked about SARS. But all I'm saying is that something that seems distant and thus trivial to you might not be to someone else, especially in a place as diverse as a university. While not all of us from SARS-plagued regions know someone who has SARS, we are part of a larger community where SARS is a very clear and present danger.

I don't mean to create paranoia about laughing in front of Asians. Not all Asians are from Asia, anyway. And what about Canadians? They are not as easy to spot in real life as they are on South Park. All I'm asking for is a little sensitivity. Just remember that what is an innocent joke to you might be a callous lampoon to someone else.

I am glad that Singapore is reportedly getting SARS under control, although the authorities there remain cautious. "Singaporeans must be psychologically prepared for the problem to stay with us for some time," one of our ministers intoned. Great. Now the tactless ignorant won't just go: "Oh, you're from Singapore? That's where people get caned, right?" Now they can add: "It's that place with SARS, isn't it?"

Right now, I'm just glad that my family and friends back in Singapore are okay and that SARS remains something that is happening to someone else, someplace else, even as I wish that that someplace else wasn't home.