Select Page

From SARS to Avian Influenza: A witness to history reflects on the first epidemics of the 21st-century

When the first whispers of a new virus emerged from Wuhan, China late last year the situation was on my radar. I lived in China for many years, and had the misfortune to experience the conditions of SARS in 2003, the H5N1 Avian Flu in 2005, and the H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009. That firsthand and repeated exposure can make anyone into a Howard Hughes-level germaphobe.

For all the fear and uncertainty that came about from SARS, and the mass culling of livestock over the animal influenzas, the Chinese government never quarantined a city of millions. To isolate Wuhan was an unprecedented reaction to a novel Coronavirus, now known as COVID-19. That action alone made it clear there would be some sort of economic impact on Wisconsin’s trade relationships – aside from the obvious health risks to the state population.

After a Chinese government-style campaign of denial, the American government has begrudgingly admitted there is a COVID-19 problem on homeland soil. Washington state has emerged as the center of the spreading coronavirus, with multiple deaths reported and an increasing number of confirmed infections.

With a full blown and misunderstood crisis now unfolding in the awareness of Milwaukee residents, some perspective for context is valuable. Especially when TV news reports have to dispel internet claims that suggest drinking bleach as a cure to COVID-19. Please, do not drink bleach – for any reason.

China is governed by the Communist Party. It is an authoritarian regime, but not the monolithic institution commonly believed in the West. Like anything involving human nature, greed and ideological created factions. I got a crash course on many cultural intricacies during my first few months of residence.

In the early days of SARS as China was gearing up for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – still five years away, and after just signing the WTO trade agreement, the wheels of change were creaking forward – but still slowly in early 2003.

I learned about SARS via the pre-censored “Great Fire Wall of China” internet, not long after reports started coming out of Hong Kong. I had been living in China for under a year, so was still adjusting to a new language and culture. Many issues competed for my attention much closer to home than Southern China, primarily the most basic of day-to-day survival in a foreign country where – in a city of millions – I could go weeks and not see another person from the West.

I was aware of SARS, but not by name or its seriousness until April 20. That was when the government admitted there had been a cover-up about the illness. The Mayor of Beijing, Meng Xuenong, and Health Minister were ousted for their mismanagement of what quickly thereafter escalated into a political crisis – aside from the obvious public health issues.

I remember comparing the ham-fisted actions I saw from Chinese officials to the professional disciplines I knew existed in America. With our institutions, there could never be a cover-up of a disease that put lives at risk, especially for something as petty as political gain.

Because of the Chinese system, most individuals were taught to be silent and let a problem pass, instead of looking for a solution to solve it. Germs do not abide by that philosophy. SARS was an embarrassment to the leadership in Beijing, and a long way off from where I was in the Northeast. Until the day it was not.

I lived very near the North Korean border with China. Overnight billboards and signs started springing up across the city about “Fēidiǎn” 非典 as SARS was referred to in Mandarin.

The Chinese population at the time was not known for good personal hygiene habits. Not only did they lack access to such products and the personal wealth to purchase them, the culture did not instill such necessities as hand washing. Ironically, when people were sick, they did wear cloth-type surgical masks to keep others from being sneezed on. But hand-washing was not a cultural habit.

Early news reports from Hong Kong had talked about a high concentration of cases, after a residential building got infected. The SARS virus was transmitted via people touching the elevator buttons with unwashed hands.

The situation around where I lived quickly became serious, and hospitals began announcing the growing number of patients they were treating for SARS across the Province – including mortality statistics. University students were restricted to campus, primary schools were closed or reduced class schedules, and I could see a noticeable drop in daily street activity. It was never a ghost town, but the vibrance had been clearly extinguished.

My friends in Milwaukee sent me medical-grade surgeon masks and disposable gloves, because those high quality items were no where to be found in the local shopping outlets I had access to. I used the protection for about a month when the hysteria ramped up, but I was less than methodical about it. A surgical mask is very uncomfortable when wearing glasses, and since the problem matured during the winter, breathing made my glasses fog.

But aside from that period, I never took active measures to protect myself other than washing my hands often – a necessity for the grime of city life anyway. For months I carried a mask and gloves in my pocket, just in case, and retained the unused supply for years after – until I left China.

At the time, I kept the stash for when the situation got bad. It never really did – for me, but perceptions of impending doom did flair up. I was very much influenced by others around me, and the uncertainty of the unknown. I was always distrustful of the Beijing government, even after my Mandarin improved and I could clearly understand how I was being lied to. But I remained fairly calm about the problem of SARS and its risks. I did not look for conspiracies and was proactive in learning and confirming what information I could get. I ultimately reasoned that when everyone around me began to freak out, then it would be time for me to become concerned.

SARS was a scare, due to the growing and interwoven nature of the global economy. But it never developed into the kind of superflu from Stephen King’s “The Stand.” Lack of information and misinformation, however, severely contributed to most of the anxiety I witnessed – and the social damage it caused.

The health situation eventually stabilized by 2004, but I continued to feel the cultural impact. That had a direct influence on my personal habits. SARS was just a natural evolution of the unsanitary conditions I constantly navigated. For example, tap water is not safe for anyone to drink. Before I could buy good foreign-made water filters locally, I had to boil water daily. Actually, even after I had the filters installed I continued to boil water for years because I had been taught to not trust the filters. My morning ritual of boiling water is how I finally developed the habit to drink coffee.

The fear of SARS faded, until the Avian Flu arrived in 2005. Every night the news broadcast on state TV showed individuals in white hazmat suits culling tens of thousands of chickens on infected farms. By 2009, it was the Swine Flu, and those white hazmat suit people were torching pigs. The pork industry suffered because that is the most favorite meat of the Chinese people. Reports surfaced that farmers were selling sick picks to cut their financial losses – without regard to the health of the public, which did not help contain the problem and only made the population more nervous about their health or who to trust.

A full blown panic never erupted, but the experiences took away what little confidence people had at the time. My life would get back to normal until another rumor of another health scare arrived, and the trigger would cause a PTSD-like reaction. I saw this in others close to me, who were far more used to being stepped on my their government.

I could not exist in that kind of environment and not be affected. But as a foreigner, some things affected me very differently – or at least did not provoke me in the same way. And some of that conditioning remained dormant until I returned to America.

I never had a panic-attack, meltdown, or Howard Hughes moment, but there were occasions when I felt extremely uncomfortable. Like the time someone in my office picked up my iPad and started using it. He touched the glass surface, then his face, then the glass again to scroll or swipe. I could not use the device again until I had sufficiently cleaned it. Also, being around children was not my favorite thing. The sneezing mucus that splattered around made me want to wear a hazmat suit, so I tended to keep my distance in the early days. The 2011 Steven Soderbergh film “Contagion” really did not help me adjust back to American life, because it too closely resembled my experience in China. Nor did my time in Alaska, when I was routinely exposed to potential Gastrointestinal (GI) infections onboard ships.

America of 2020 is not just more connected than it was in 2002, but also how we interact with the world. The iPhone came out in 2007, two years after SARS. Now, everyone has a touch-screen mobile device. Our culture forgets how many things we touch in public. There is no longer a public phone booth, thankfully. But my Milwaukee bank branch has “video tellers,” which is an ATM and a video screen that is supposed to provide personal service via a machine. The system uses a traditional pay phone-style handset, which get high levels of usage from people using the bank’s services. I am forced to use the system too, but it is still an uncomfortable situation.

There is not a public hysteria over COVID-19 yet, but anxiety is brewing. It does not help that a great deal of political disinformation is coming from Washington DC. For me it is Déjà vu, but I am home and do not need to translate what is being said. Even so, I do not understood what I have heard coming for the Trump White House, because it is illogical, unscientific, and puts his political interests above the health of the nation.

“I have been speaking to experts for the last few days, and the response thus far has been a terrible failure. There has been a complete failure to deploy accurate testing at a scale that is necessary to get your arms around the scope of the epidemic. The political leadership has sent the message to the bureaucracy and to the public, that they want this to go away. They don’t want it to be a big problem. They don’t want the markets to tank. And they don’t want it to hurt the economy. The fact of the matter is we have already learned from the trail of the pandemic from China to Iran, Korea, Japan, and Italy, that the worst thing you can do at the front end of this is tamp down and deny the scope of the problem you’re dealing with.” – Chris Hayes has sold out of disinfectants, gloves, and masks, as Americans have become more aware of CONVID-19. The CDC has advised that anyone exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus avoid public areas as much as possible, and seek medical attention. Yet Trump’s autocracy continues to foment conspiracy theories about the virus, dismissing news about it as a “new hoax” that targets him.

The ineptness of the federal reaction has only fueled the unease, uncertainty, and confusion for a population that has not been exposed to this serious type of epidemic before. The usual reaction brings panic and blame for the wrong people. Pointing a finger never medically cured anyone, but has certainly caused enormous harm.

Federal leadership has also done little to prove it is prepared or professional enough to deal with the ongoing situation, let alone a full blow crisis. And because there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, anti-vaxxers have one less hoax to spread in support of their cause.

The Milwaukee Independent has been reporting on COVID-19 since late January, and was the first local news outlet to do so. The problems in China are a long way off to the people of Milwaukee. It took less than two months for that problem to get here, with Wisconsin reporting its first case of infection in February.

Experience in China with SARS is no indicator for what will happen with COVID-19 in Milwaukee, but there are already clear parallels. In part with how the illness spreads, but more specifically with governmental management and pubic reaction. So much of what I witnessed in China during my youth prepared me for life in America as an older adult, which is a sad irony.

I believe how we – as a local community and nation – respond to this problem will show a lot about our character. It will expose our faults and weaknesses too, but my sincerest hope is that we have a chance for healing and redemption as the situation develops. Just maybe we can rise above our limitations instead of melting down because we are imprisoned by them.

© Photo

Lee Matz and 波吴

  1. Coronavirus chaos on historic election day creates challenges for Milwaukee voters
  2. Passenger overcrowding forces MCTS to limit 10 riders per bus for health safety beginning April 9
  3. “Moment at the Museum” video series provides online tour of historic exhibit for Milwaukee public
  4. Sofa Cinema: Milwaukee Film launches virtual movie portal for home theaters
  5. Milwaukee Rep brings its creative performances and activities “From Our Home to Your Home”
  6. Democracy or Death: State GOP forces a smash-and-grab election with in-person voting during a pandemic
  7. Entitlement to Govern: How the fog of pandemic offers one more chance for a power grab
  8. Institutional Betrayal: The lasting trauma from playing down the threat of COVID-19 and failing to act
  9. Officials ask Milwaukee consumers to report fraudulent claims related to coronavirus crisis
  10. President Thanos: Trump’s genocidal intentions were foreshadowed in his re-election campaign video
  11. Citizen solders and airmen from Wisconsin National Guard assist with state’s COVID-19 response
  12. State National Guard units are taking the lead in the military’s response to the coronavirus
  13. Unfounded conspiracy theories force Wisconsin National Guard to debunk enforcement rumors
  14. U.S. Navy fires captain of aircraft carrier who sought help for his sailors stricken with COVID-19
  15. News outlets warned for months about the coronavirus but few listened
  16. Life goes on even when it doesn’t: Streaming a funeral “watch party” in the age of coronavirus
  17. Fear of The Walking Dumb: The health of our nation is being decimated by willful ignorance
  18. By The Numbers: Tracking the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic sweeping across Wisconsin
  19. Politics over Humanity: Wisconsin GOP seeks to rig latest election through attrition of urban voters
  20. Milwaukee leaders explore using Wisconsin State Fair grounds as overflow facility for COVID-19 patients
  21. Milwaukee COVID-19 survivor shares personal medical experience via social media to educate others
  22. Regional banks and city leadership plan cooperative efforts to address Milwaukee's economic challenges
  23. Governor Tony Evers calls for special session to delay primary but Lawmakers insist election proceed
  24. Milwaukee faces poll worker shortage for April 7 election amid pandemic complications
  25. Protecting the Democracy: How to ensure safe elections amid the coronavirus pandemic
  26. Reggie Jackson: The next challenge of the COVID-19 fight in Milwaukee
  27. Already a community infected by racial hate, Anti-Asian sentiment hits Milwaukee along with COVID-19
  28. Building Community Bridges to Improve Health Equity in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond
  29. GoFundMe campaign raises funds to buy meals for frontline hospital workers from local restaurants
  30. A crisis within a crisis: COVID-19 disproportionally impacts Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods
  31. Public health concerns push Milwaukee’s 2020 Democratic National Convention to August
  32. Reggie Jackson: Critical lessons we need to learn about COVID-19 from China and Italy
  33. Sorry, some of you have to die: A Conservative Christian plan to save the economy
  34. A wake-up call for humanity: The coronavirus pandemic exposes long ignored failures of our society
  35. Fear of demographic change has increased White Nationalist hate groups 55% in Trump era
  36. State Propaganda: Chinese media outlets hit with stricter rules while Fox churns out disinformation
  37. First week of staying at home: A window of images around Milwaukee for everyone stuck behind walls
  38. A Social Recession: The profound physical and psychological effects from long-term isolation
  39. An ego dripping in blood: Trump’s lies are killing Americans
  40. Obligations to each other: The pursuit of happiness is tied to the collective good
  41. Coronavirus and the Rule of Law: Courts struggle to preserve justice amid catastrophic conditions
  1. Milwaukee’s Holy Week observances canceled as public celebrations convert to at home video streaming
  2. Faith is not a Place: Church is a living body of people who gather in empathy, mercy, love, and justice
  3. St. Francis Seminary to provide shelter for residents with housing instability during COVID-19 crisis
  4. Millions of low-wage workers remain vulnerable to coronavirus due to lack of paid sick leave
  5. Milwaukee Hope: A hometown meme series designed to inspire optimism during the coronavirus crisis
  6. Dear America: I know how scared you are, I’m scared too
  7. Heroes of Hope: How to find healing and happiness when life is surrounded by havoc
  8. A Political Plan B: DNC organizers prepare contingency options for Milwaukee’s July Convention
  9. Coronavirus pours cold water on Olympic flame as Tokyo Games get postponed to 2021
  10. Milwaukee rolls out “drive-up” option for early voting to eliminate risk of COVID-19 exposure
  11. Hey, Milwaukee, you are not on vacation. Take the stay-at-home order seriously
  12. COVID-19 social media campaign launches in Milwaukee with best practices for staying healthy
  13. Coalition of Milwaukee philanthropies partner to coordinate local resources in response to COVID-19
  14. Fleeing the Coronavirus: The dangers for individuals and everyone they encounter along the journey
  15. Milwaukee County seeks donations of Personal Protective Equipment for COVID-19 frontline workers
  16. Medical gear from postponed charitable clinic to distributed first responders statewide
  17. The Great Apprehension: How to help kids relax as the pandemic upends everyday life
  18. The Myth of Youth: How children can be infected with coronavirus and transmit it to others
  19. Jonathan Brostoff: On COVID-19 and Wisconsin’s future “After the Storm”
  20. Reggie Jackson: The impact of racism is the “Other Coronavirus Crisis” for People of Color
  21. How to have a healthy conversation about the coronavirus with someone who is misinformed
  22. Mass transit in a time of need: MCTS to suspend fare collection for bus rides from March 28
  23. Fighting the Coronavirus: Why the U.S. military should deploy as a humanitarian aid force
  24. The Inconvenience of COVID-19: Understanding the shared national sacrifice for a greater good
  25. Kevin Abing: Milwaukee mobilized every resource possible in 1918 to combat the Spanish Flu epidemic
  26. Greatest Pandemic in History: Common misconceptions about the global influenza of 1918
  27. Month-long “Safer at Home” order urges Wisconsin residents to make sacrifices and work together
  28. Masks and the Microbe Menace: A misperception that safety measures shield risky activities from danger
  29. Not a Lockdown: Milwaukee implements “Stay At Home” directive in order to save lives
  30. Safer At Home: Wisconsin orders statewide closure of non-essential businesses to contain COVID-19
  31. Frontline nurses treating coronavirus victims condemn Trump’s racist rhetoric and cruelty
  32. PrideFest 2020 postponement due to COVID-19 foreshadows disruption of summer festival season
  33. Stop Touching Your Face: Changes to habitual behaviors can minimize the spread of COVID-19
  34. Reggie Jackson: The COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the absolute moral corruption of our society
  35. Health Official condemns Senator Ron Johnson’s false equivalency between traffic accidents and COVID-19
  36. The disappointment that comes when a pandemic cancels the freedom to party
  37. Vulnerable Populations: Infection rates and mortality from COVID-19 expected to hit the homeless hard
  38. Connecting without the human touch: How to cope with the side effects of social distancing
  39. Flattening the Curve: How to slow fear from spreading faster than COVID-19
  40. Sorry, We’re Closed: The signs and sights of solitude as Milwaukee digs in to fight COVID-19
  41. Being Positive during a Pandemic: 5 tips for getting through the coronavirus as a better person
  42. COVID-19 Mutual Aid: Confronting coronavirus conditions with community instead of consternation
  43. One of Wisconsin’s first two COVID-19 Deaths confirmed in Ozaukee County
  44. Price of our Pandemic: The bill for MAGA has come due and it is time to pay up
  45. The same people who believed COVID-19 was a hoax should now buy the homeopathic cure forsythia
  46. When plagues followed bad leadership: Greek tragedy of Oedipus Tyrannos is a lesson for Trump on COVID-19
  47. Wisconsin residents reminded to take precautions against COVID-19 scams and price gouging
  48. MCTS encourages riders to limit non-essential bus travel to help prevent spread of COVID-19
  49. The supply and demand of COVID-19: Predicted infection rates would overwhelm Milwaukee hospitals
  50. Wisconsin passengers under coronavirus quarantine aboard Grand Princess cruise ship return home safely
  51. Milwaukee Municipalities issue emergency orders closing bars and restaurants to protect public health
  52. Governor Tony Evers signs statewide order prohibiting mass gatherings of more than 50 People
  53. Teaching amid Coronavirus: What to expect from educational institutions as classes move online
  54. Wisconsin mandates closure of all K-12 Schools until early April to prevent spreading of COVID-19
  55. Closure of school cafeterias due to coronavirus puts poorest children at risk of missing nutritious meals
  56. Stop hoarding the Charmin: Why people are panic buying toilet paper when there is an abundant supply
  57. The social burden of Consumerism: Shopping carts are not overflowing with compassion
  58. Social Distancing: Think of it as “Elbow Room” for your health in the age of contagious pathogens
  59. City’s Health Department urges Milwaukee residents to avoid non-essential travel
  60. Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office outlines COVID-19 protocols for protecting individuals in custody
  61. Coronavirus Hits Home: Milwaukee confirms first case of COVID-19 within the city
  62. Impact of COVID-19 sinks in for Milwaukee Bucks fans after NBA suspends remainder of season
  63. Governor Tony Evers declares public health emergency for Wisconsin in response to COVID-19
  64. A cauldron for infectious disease: Spread of COVID-19 inevitable in overcrowded ICE detention centers
  65. From SARS to Avian Influenza: A witness to history reflects on the first epidemics of the 21st-century
  66. Public health officials face challenges in distinguishing COVID-19 from seasonal influenza
  67. Plain old soap and water: Why hand-washing is still the best way to prevent illness
  68. Coronavirus Update: Milwaukee outlines preparations and precautions for dealing with COVID-19
For medical information, guidance, and resources, please visit the CDC’s COVID-19 information page or the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. All editorial content published by Milwaukee Independent related to the coronavirus can be found at
Our mission of transformative journalism means that we are editorially independent. Our staff determines what is important news to report on, and in what voice to speak on issues. No one influences our opinion, and no one edits our editors. We are free from commercial bias and are not influenced by corporate interests, political affiliations, or a public preferences that rewards clicks with revenue. As an influential publication that provides Milwaukee with quality journalism, we depend on public support to fulfill our purpose. Our award-winning photojournalism, columns, interviews, and features have helped to achieve a range of positive social impact that enriches our community. Please join our effort by entrusting us with your contribution. Your Support Matters - Donate Now

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as an award-winning foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe. Lee proudly uses MCTS as the exclusive mode of transportation for covering all his news reports.