OP-ED: Facing SARS threat: a firm's firsthand account

While many initially dismissed SARS as nothing more than a bad cold, the disease transformed life in Beijing and business in China overall.

While many initially dismissed SARS as nothing more than a bad cold, the disease transformed life in Beijing and business in China overall.

Who would have thought the slightest sniffle could cause people to step back with angst? Rumors of the disease began circulating long before the Chinese government acknowledged SARS. Word traveled to Hoffman's Beijing office from our colleagues in Hong Kong. At first, because the government hadn't even admitted SARS existed - let alone released any information about prevention - it didn't seem like a real threat. When I held a staff meeting to discuss the spread of SARS in Hong Kong and potential measures we would take if it hit Beijing, flexible hours and work-from-home options seemed unnecessary. But within weeks, rumors had spread unchecked throughout the capital. As information trickled in about the contagiousness of the disease, people began buying face masks and turning to traditional Chinese medicine which purportedly boosts the immune system. China, known for its culture emphasizing personal relationships, did an about-face. The easy spread of the disease meant an innocent sneeze was likely to make people bolt from a room. Danger lurked on crowded buses. Elevator buttons were assumed contaminated. I saw this fear manifest itself in different ways. Even though our Beijing office sits on the 21st floor of the CITIC building, our staff started taking the stairs rather than "risk" a ride on the elevator. As a second example, one of our consultants handed out masks to members of the media at a recent press conference, and I saw firsthand the visible relief on reporters' faces. Yet, the Chinese government maintained its silence about SARS in an attempt to ensure social stability and prevent the country from grinding to an economic halt. Unfortunately, by the time officials finally broke the news about SARS, rumors had rocked the capital into a state of near hysteria. A rush to stock up on rice and staple foods caused grocery store lines to stretch down the block. Staff members relayed rumors to me ranging from crop dusting planes blanketing the city with anti-bacterial chemicals to imminent martial law. The environment seemed surreal. As the number of cases increased, I worried more and more about what to do if a colleague contracted SARS, especially given the deplorable care available at state-run hospitals. Would we all be quarantined? Would our office be shut down? At this point, I decided to implement the measures that appeared so hypothetical a short time ago. Staffers who usually took the bus or subway to work were encouraged to commute during off-peak hours to avoid the rush-hour crush. We distributed anti-bacterial hand gel to everyone. We asked people to rest at home if they didn't feel well. When one employee said that residents in her apartment complex had contracted SARS, we offered to courier goods to her so she wouldn't run out of food or worry about leaving her home. Needless to say, the paranoia at this time had a profound impact on doing business in Beijing. Face-to-face interactions, crucial to sealing deals and maintaining productive business relationships, went by the wayside. At the height of SARS, we conducted business remotely so staff members could work from home. This posed a different challenge since telecommuting is not exactly an accepted practice in China. The T1-like access to the internet we take for granted in our China offices gave way to frustratingly slow dial-up connections from the home. As a result, the flow of communications and information degraded into a stop-start mode. In spite of the obstacles, we managed to keep pushing our client programs forward, albeit with recalibrated expectations. The emphasis moved to feature stories rather than news. Interviews were often conducted online. With no way to predict the future, the planning cycle for clients shrunk to one month. Reflecting on SARS' impact on China, it's clear the Chinese government's initial cover-up undermined its credibility in the eyes of the Chinese people. And from the perspective of the global business community, companies received another reminder that cracking this market poses unique challenges. Of course, leave it to the Chinese government to put a positive spin on the story. Supposedly, online purchases spiked during the SARS epidemic, leading to recent government proclamations that investments in e-commerce infrastructure will be accelerated. From my perspective, I'm just glad to see people once again taking public transportation without wearing masks. Our staff has returned to taking the elevator and their normal exercise routines. And restaurants and bars are once again full of people ... though sneezes in a crowded room still sometimes cause an involuntary flinch.
  • Lynn Furrow has spent 14 years in Greater China, and is general manager of Hoffman China.

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