In the Middle of the Epidemic

I lived in Asia from 2001-2003. Just like in last week’s email/blog post, I lived in a country that didn’t allow missionaries. It’s the same country from last week… the one that we enjoy eating their food off of buffet lines. In my second year there I joined my wife on staff at an International School. I led worship at the chapel services, taught a Microsoft Office class to Middle School students, and created a Service Learning Curriculum.

The Service Learning Classes were awesome for both the students and me. While I taught the classes, I was also laying the foundation for a Service Learning Curriculum that would impact students for years to come. Part of that foundation involved a trip to Hong Kong International School. Our Headmaster wanted to use HKIS as the template for us to work off. As a result, he arranged for me to take a service trip to Southern China with my counterpart and his students and then go back to Hong Kong and see how the classes were taught at HKIS. Because their school was on a holiday for Chinese New Year, I was meeting them at a train station in Southern China.

Chinese New Year is a big deal. Everyone is supposed to travel to the homes of their families/ancestors. Imagine the familial importance we place on Thanksgiving and multiply it by the spiritual significance of Easter. I was in China and Hong Kong during the busiest travel time of the year.

I flew into Guangzhou’s airport which was totally clogged with travelers going all over China. It remains to this day the busiest airport I’ve ever been in. I then took a taxi to Foshan Train Station. When I arrived at the train station I started walking around, looking for a bus full of non-Chinese. It took a long time to find them but what I did discover was that you can visualize 1,000,000,000 people pretty easily when you’re at a train station during Chinese New Year. There were people everywhere. Groups sat on the ground outside the train station waiting for a turn to go inside when room opened up in there. People waited for buses to arrive to take them to their ancestral villages. Simply put, it was a sea of humanity.

When SARS started spreading across Asia no one knew what was happening at first because some of the governments cracked down on the press to not release any information. SARS went from a small sickness to a potential global pandemic during Chinese New Year. The train stations of China were hotbeds for disease transmission.

One month after my trip, SARS was all that Asia was talking about. The World Health Organization listed every province and country that I had been in during my trip as a transmission site. Tourism totally died in my city. Markets and restaurants were empty. A sneeze or cough was reason to fear for your life. Our school had to teach staff and students how to properly cough (into your elbow, not your hand), give everyone hand sanitizer at the gates of the school, and wipe down all common surfaces with disinfectant on a daily basis.

Five months after my trip, when I left Asia to return to America, we were still subjected to body heat scans at the airport to keep the now-confined SARS from spreading again through sick travelers.

I had been right in the middle of the epidemic as it spread. I had walked among the infected in Southern China’s train stations and airports without having a clue about the danger around me. And everything worked out just fine.

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