The emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China’s Guangdong Province in the winter of 2002 was an exemplary spillover event: it marked the passage of a lethal pathogen from nonhuman to human animals and was widely heralded as the first “plague” of the twenty-first century. The SARS coronavirus seemed to burst out of nowhere and demonstrated pandemic potential from February 2003 when it diffused globally via Hong Kong. After SARS was officially declared contained by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 5 July 2003, there were a few isolated cases but none since 2004.
SARS in the SAR
Hong Kong was at the epicenter of the 2003 SARS outbreak and the identity of the newly recognized pathogen became fortuitously linked to Hong Kong’s evolving status as a postcolonial Chinese city under Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Since its “handover” from Britain in 1997, the territory had been a “Special Administrative Region” (or SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – a quasi-autonomous region within the sovereignty of China.
In a WHO press release on 15 March 2003, the new “syndrome,” which had made its first appearance in Hong Kong in February of that year, was named “SARS.” The acronym was easily confused with the abbreviation SAR by which Hong Kong was known. SARS and SAR acquired a disturbing indexicality. Referred to sardonically by some commentators as the “Special Administrative Region Syndrome,” Hong Kong officials were wary of using the term SARS to describe the new disease. Instead, they continued calling it “atypical pneumonia.”
Colonial Hong Kong had from its beginning lived under the shadow of its looming end.
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