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Hong Kong and SARS: A city under siege

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 21 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Hong Kong (CNN) — The death of a sixth patient from a SARS-like virus comes on the week that marks 10 years since the deadly outbreak hit Hong Kong.

Reports of the new virus’ spread remind me of a phone call I received a decade ago: “Kevin, we’re hearing that there might be a case of SARS on Lamma,” said my boss, referring to the tiny island off Hong Kong where I live.

Back then I was working for The Wall Street Journal Asia, and my colleagues and I had been reporting on the outbreak for weeks from our homes. Like many businesses at the height of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, employees were encouraged to stay away from the office, or any other places where large numbers of people gather.

Still, I remember thinking: What do I do with this information? How do I defend against what is unknown and unseen? And is the sniffle I have more than just a runny nose?

When the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its global alert on March 12, 2003 — an ominous warning of a “world-wide health threat” due the outbreak of an unknown form of severe pneumonia — Hong Kong became a city under siege.

Those of us living in the city in the months following that alert watched as the disease spread daily, growing from 150 confirmed cases in 10 nations to 8,096 cases in 30 nations — killing 774 people — by July, according to WHO.

Hospitals were overrun, an apartment complex was quarantined, and restaurants and bars in one of the most crowded cities in the world were deserted.

The disease decimated social conventions: A public service announcement suggested Japanese-like bows rather than handshakes at business meetings; signs offered instruction on how to wash hands and proper spitting etiquette. Money changing hands suddenly took on a new scrutiny. Catholic priests were forbidden from offering sacramental wine and placing communion wafers in the mouths of the faithful.

Many in this city of seven million turned to wearing masks, a prophylactic against panic yet an unnerving reminder of the life-and-death fights in the city’s medical centers.

We now know SARS started in November 2002 across the border in mainland China’s Guangdong Province, percolating there until 10 years ago today.

On February 21, 2003, a Chinese doctor who treated patients with atypical pneumonia in Guangdong province in China checked into Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel to attend a wedding. The next day, the doctor was admitted to a Hong Kong hospital for respiratory failure. Disease detectives say SARS then spread to other travelers at the hotel, who then hopped on jumbo jets and spread the illness around the world.

But that is hindsight. At the time, more was unknown than known, which ratcheted fears.

Statistics offered comfort: The numbers were relatively small, we told ourselves, and noted that tens of thousands of people die each year of pneumonia in the U.S. alone. But our emotional lives aren’t lived in a realm of statistical truth, as the casino and lottery industries can attest. You can tell yourself the odds are far against infection, and farther still against death, and yet — what’s that tickle in my throat?

Fear was driven by the novelty of the disease. Epidemiologists had a number of false starts on the origin of the disease — It’s chlammydia penuemoniae; no, it’s a paramyxovirus — until it was revealed to be a new strain of coronavirus, the same family of disease as the common cold. This did little to salve public nerves, because who hasn’t come down with a cold?

One day during the height of the outbreak I went to a movie with a friend, and I choked on my drink. As I coughed uncontrollably, a couple sitting behind us — the only other people in the theater –got up and left.

The economic and political backdrop of the disease didn’t help. The WHO announcement came just days before the 2003 Iraq War began. The September 11 terrorist attacks were still fresh in the public psyche, and before the disease was identified many serious questions were being asked whether it was bioterrorist attack. Hong Kong was already dealing with record high employment, which SARS further raised to an unprecedented 8.6% by June.

“It’s a general emotional backdrop; life is not safe, the world is not safe, even the ground under my feet I can’t count on,” a local counselor told me at the time. “People are very, very tired and very insecure.”

Rumors spread faster than the disease. The suspected outbreak on my island proved false. After the outbreak at Amoy Gardens, an apartment complex where 329 people were infected and 42 killed, city officials went into overdrive to stop a rumor going viral on the internet that entire city was poised to be quarantined. A 14-year-old boy was later arrested for creating a fake news page creating the story.

Most of the sick and dying were city medical professionals — which made sense, considering they were the ones at the frontline treating the illness — but that only added to our worries: If doctors and nurses can’t protect themselves, how can we?

The cost to business was high. Conventions shut down, tourists stayed away. A friend of mine nearly lost his consulting business as he paid office rental space and salaries for three people with no income for three months as clients canceled training sessions. The Asian Develop Bank estimated SARS cost East and Southeast Asian economies $60 billion in lost demand and business revenue.

But as the months passed, so did the malady. You could see the green sprouts of recovery in the early weeks as people turned masks into fashion statements, embroidering surgical masks with sequins; other entrepreneurs started selling masks with Hello Kitty or other cartoon characters.

On July 1, 2003, half a million of the city’s residents took to the streets on the sixth anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China. Ostensibly, the protests were against a controversial new security measure, but the outpouring of support was fueled by frustrations with public officials over SARS.

The city’s property market was leveled by fallout from the disease, but anyone who lived in Hong Kong at the time (this author included) is now kicking themselves for not purchasing an apartment during SARS — the city’s property is now among the most expensive in the world.

In retrospect, it can be argued that the paranoia of the first few months paid off: SARS was identified and stopped with unprecedented speed.

“It was rapidly contained within less than four months of the initial alert, as a result of an unprecedented level of international cooperation designed to prevent it from becoming established in people, as HIV/AIDS had done during the 20th century,” Professor David L. Heymann, head of the Centre on Global Health Security at UK think tank Chatham House, recently wrote.

Still others argue lessons from SARS remain unlearned. “Once the initial dilly-dallying gave way to decisive and swift state action, resources were effectively mobilized against the epidemic and policy coordination was significantly improved,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow on global health for the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote earlier this month.

“Yet many of the measures widely credited for stopping the spread of the virus, such as isolation and quarantine, were only implemented after the virus” had dissipated, he said.

The cases of a new SARS-like virus hitting a handful of people in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UK serves as reminder of the strange days that we in Hong Kong lived through a decade ago, and the hope that early detection of these cases will prevent other cities from living through a similar siege.

High above the Swiss snowline, the temperature is rising. Locked in a tight embrace on the slopes of the Verbier ski resort yesterday, Prince Harry and his society girlfriend Cressida Bonas seem to be closer than ever.

The very public display of affection, in front of dozens of fellow skiers, came only a few hours after even more intimate revelries at a restaurant in the town.

It was not a wild night by Harry’s standards; no one was naked or wearing Nazi fancy dress.

But fellow diners in the wee small hours  at the Pot Luck Club restaurant in the resort’s Farinet Hotel were entertained by the sight of the Prince bouncing the 24-year-old blonde model and would-be actress on his knee.

The pair were said to have ‘kissed like love-struck teenagers in the back of a cinema’.

The other end of the same table was an altogether more sober affair. Harry’s uncle, Prince Andrew, whose 53rd birthday on Tuesday they were celebrating, sat with his ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, and their two daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

Eugenie’s boyfriend, Jack Brooksbank, briefly strolled over chatted to Harry and Cressida. But for the most part they had eyes only for each other. The Yorks  traditionally enjoy a week’s skiing in the resort every year to mark Prince Andrew’s birthday, often inviting photographers to capture the event. This time, perhaps not unsurprisingly, the invitation was not extended.

The family had booked a table for 20 at The Pot Luck, where they ordered steak and king prawns and drank £17 champagne cocktails.

As the night drew on, Harry and his socialite girlfriend became increasingly tactile.

Shortly before midnight, Miss Bonas, who wore a minuscule black dress and heels, showing off a pair of endless legs, stood up and walked over to sit on Harry’s lap.

The pair then began to kiss, with Harry stroking the back of her head as they did so, in a passionate clinch for several minutes.

A witness said: ‘We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. They were not being discreet about it.
‘The Duchess of York and Eugenie sat just a few seats away at the time and seemed to be deliberately looking the other way, making polite conversation while it was happening.

‘Afterwards, Harry’s girl stayed sitting on his knee while they chatted to his friends.’

The diner went on to reveal: ‘At one point, a waiter brought over a tray of vodka and Red Bull and Harry shouted: “Free drinks on the house!” Everyone seemed to be having a great time.’

Although Prince Andrew left shortly afterwards, the younger royals went on to an exclusive bar above the restaurant, before moving to a basement nightclub, where they stayed until 3.30am.

Despite the late night, however, Harry and Cressida still hit the slopes yesterday morning and were again seen openly hugging and kissing on the slopes, which were packed with half-term visitors.

Both appeared to be extremely competent skiers and spent most of the day on the mountain.

At one point, taking a break from their fun, Harry was seen putting his arms around Cressida’s waist while she rested her head on his shoulder.

The student, who wore a white woolly hat with a fur bobble and pink salopettes, appeared relaxed and could be seen laughing with the Duchess of York as they left the slopes.

She and Eugenie were also seen lying on the snow and giggling as they played with a large St Bernard dog.

Last summer’s disastrous Las Vegas stag trip, during which Harry, now 28, was pictured naked — a faux pas which reportedly led to him being dumped briefly by a furious Cressida — seems a very long time ago now.

So, for that matter, does his previous, long-term relationship with the Zimbabwean heiress Chelsy Davy, who dumped him in 2011, reportedly because she could not face the prospect of being in the spotlight as a royal wife.

Since Vegas, Harry, in his guise of Captain Wales of the Army Air Corps, has served a four-month tour of Afghanistan as a co-pilot in an Apache attack helicopter.

At the end of his service he talked of having a new maturity. A few months earlier, he had complained on American television that he would like to settle down, but girls were put off by his royal status.

So, do this week’s events in  Verbier suggest matters are getting serious between him and the Stowe-educated Miss Bonas?

The couple are said to have started dating last May, though they only appeared as an item on the public radar when pictured leaving a Mayfair nightclub in July.

They had spent the evening ‘kissing and cuddling’ inside Le Salon after attending the latest Batman premiere.

Harry’s cousin and Miss Bonas’s good friend Princess Eugenie is said to have brought them together.

The daughter of renowned Old Harrovian businessman Jeffrey Bonas and Sixties model Lady Mary Curzon — who posed semi-naked for a coffee table photographic book and went on to get married and divorced four times — Cressida is a familiar figure in London’s upper-class social scene.

As a teenager, she was labelled by society bible Tatler as ‘really pretty, really nice and absolutely obsessed with Eva Cassidy (the late American singer)’.

After splitting up with Miss Davy, Harry was linked to a string of women, including model Florence Brudenell-Bruce. But Cressida seems to be the one he has been most smitten with.

Like Miss Davy, ‘Cressie’ went to Leeds University where she dated Harry Wentworth-Stanley, son of the Marchioness of Milford Haven. After graduation, that relationship cooled. Now she has a prince in her life.

Last year she and Harry flew together to the Caribbean island of Necker for the birthday of tycoon Sir Richard Branson’s son Sam, who is engaged to be married to Miss Bonas’s beautiful half- sister, the actress Isabella Anstuther-Gough-Calthorpe.

This week’s ski holiday, to which the Prince had flown on budget airline easyJet, is significant in royal terms for more than one reason.

It is the first time in many, many years that Harry has been seen in public with the snubbed Duke of York’s ex-wife.

Sarah was robustly frozen out by the Royal Family after being photographed having her toes sucked by her ‘financial adviser’ in the South of France, an incident which precipitated her divorce from Prince Andrew.

And despite enjoying a close relationship with Harry and his brother William while they were growing up, they had little to do with Sarah after she fell out with their mother Diana, Princess of Wales, shortly before her death.

Andrew, however, has always championed his ex-wife and, despite the fact that she was pointedly not invited to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding, will no doubt be feeling pleased that his nephew Harry is rekindling their relationship once again, thanks to Cressida.

So, a thaw in royal relations. Miss Bonas seems to be melting hearts.

Stunned Barca slam pitch after Milan loss

Posted by Nuttapon_S On February - 21 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Barcelona assistant coach Jordi Roura hit out at the state of the pitch after his side were left staring at an early Champions League exit following a shock 2-0 reverse to AC Milan.

Ghanaians Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari scored one apiece in a lively second half as the hosts, impressive defensively throughout, stunned the Catalans in their last 16, first leg, at the San Siro.

Roura, standing in for Tito Vilanova while the coach undergoes cancer treatment in New York, admitted the Blaugrana had simply not done enough.

But the 45-year-old Spaniard, whose own playing career was virtually ended at the San Siro in 1989 when he suffered a serious knee injury while playing for Barcelona, also claimed the pitch was unfit for a Champions League game.

“It’s bad to lose 2-0 but we’re convinced that when we’ll be playing at home in front of our own fans on a pitch that is fit for this competition, we will overcome this setback,” said Roura.

For Massimiliano Allegri the win — Milan’s first over Barca in the competition since 2000 — was more than welcome.

The Rossoneri coach was lucky to avoid the sack after a disastrous start to the Serie A season, but has overseen a significant improvement since then.

“It’s a great and deserved win for us,” said Allegri.

“We worked hard as a club to prepare for this match and the lads did a great job.

“We could have perhaps done better with the chances we had in the first half, and finished the game with a third goal, but we never believed we would be going to the Nou Camp with a 2-0 advantage.”

Milan, crowned European champions seven times, had failed to beat the four-times winners in the Champions League since a 2-0 win at the Camp Nou in 2000 and had also exited the competition last season and in 2006 after defeats to the Spaniards.

But after a promising first-half display was taken up a level in the second period, the bulk of the 75,000 fans in attendance were given reason to believe their team can go on to qualify for the quarter-finals.

Although born in Germany, Boateng played for Ghana in the 2010 World Cup and made the stadium erupt in the 57th minute with a superb opener.

Striker Stephan El Shaarawy, who spurned two goalscoring chances in the first half, won a free-kick 30 metres out after a foul by Dani Alves.

Riccardo Montolivo’s shot appeared to bounce off the hand of Cristian Zapata before falling fortuitously for Boateng, who beat Victor Valdes with a superb strike from the edge of the area.

Barcelona were showing little threat, while Milan continued to grow in confidence.

An Andres Iniesta effort that from range that shaved the far post was as close as the visitors came to scoring, but soon after that they fell further behind.

Nine minutes from time, substitute M’Baye Niang and El Shaarawy combined, with the latter’s fine flick setting up Muntari to lash in the second goal with a superb angled strike.

“Tonight we played just as we’d hoped to play – we closed down space and tried to hit them on the counter-attack,” said Montolivo.

“But Barcelona were formidable. I expect the second leg to be a real battle,” he added, with a nod towards the March 12 return.

Energy Minister: Power supply critical on April 5

Posted by Nuttapon_S On February - 21 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

The postponement of planned maintenance on the Myanmar Yanada gas pipeline has not eased concerns of a power shortage in early April, with the Yingluck government warning of the need to cut electricity use during this critical period.

Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn said after meeting with energy officials on Wednesday that Total, the French operator of the Yadana field, had agreed to delay maintenance work on the pipeline, scheduled from the morning of April 4 to April 5, until April 14 as requested by Thailand.

But he warned of a possible shortfall of electricity on April 5, especially in the afternoon when electricity consumption usually peaks to 26,300 megawatts.

Thailand enters a long holiday period on April 6, starting with a three-day holiday until April 8, which is in lieu of Chakri Memorial Day on Saturday April 6. Then the Songkran holiday officially runs from April 12 to 16. Many people also take the extra days off in the middle.

In an effort to encourage energy saving campaign ahead of the cutback in the natural gas supply from Myanmar, the cabinet on Wednesday announced officials in state agencies should not wear suits at work, to reduce the workload on airconditioners.

Air conditioners in state agencies nationwide should be reset to 25 degrees Celsuis or above, and power-save light setting in the workplace would also be enforced.

Cabinet ministers, including Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra, set an example by taking off their suit jackets at a meeting at Government House.

Mr Pongsak said the government will take the opportunity offered by a possible power outage to launch a campaign encouraging people to save energy at all times and put use of biofuels and renewable energy on top of the priority list.

However activists were not convinced by the rhetoric, accusing the government of having a hidden agenda in  drumming up fears about a possible power crisis.

The Consumer Protection Network said the call was explicitly aimed to revive a plan to build a nuclear power plant in the country, a plan which had faced massive opposition, and to justify an increase in electricity charges.

They urged the government to seriously look for alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind generated power, to ease the country’s dependence on gas to power electricity generation.

No government had ever taken alternative energy sources seriously and theyhad let gas dominate the source of power, Prasart Meetam, a network member, said.

Jiraporn Limpananont, chairwoman of the Foundation of Consumers, called on the government to promote the use of solar cells in public, hotels and shopping centres, saying it is environmentally friendly.