HONG KONG — Jaime Sezto hasn't had SARS, nor has either of her two business partners or the five employees in her small graphic design firm. But that hasn't stopped the deadly virus from devastating her life.
Since the full weight of severe acute respiratory syndrome hit Hong Kong in mid-March, the firm's once-brisk turnover of Asian designer T-shirts, trinkets and other tourist keepsakes has plummeted to near zero.
"There's nothing to do," Sezto said. "Nothing. I don't know what the future holds for us."
She is hardly alone.
As the numbers of new SARS cases and deaths in Hong Kong begin to level off and more residents dare to resume the semblance of a normal routine, many here find it hard to comprehend the economic wreckage the virus has wrought in a matter of weeks.
The strength of the territory's currency has been downgraded and its projected growth slashed. Its budget deficit is up and its international image sullied. One of the world's most efficient financial centers is today better known as a global health hazard.
Mainland China's delayed response to its own, potentially far larger SARS outbreak has merely exacerbated Hong Kong's plight.
"We've become a pariah," said Christine Loh, a political activist and founder of the public advocacy group Civic Exchange.
Although the territory's financial secretary, Antony Leung, insisted last week that it was still too soon to tally the economic costs of the outbreak, the World Bank was less inhibited. In a report Thursday, it suggested that SARS could lop a full 2 percentage points off the territory's projected growth for this year -- an amount roughly equal to $3.2 billion.
Certainly epidemics have wreaked havoc in the past. The so-called Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 is believed to have killed 25 million to 30 million people worldwide -- including up to 80% of those in some U.S. Army units in World War I. Asian flu epidemics in the late 1950s and 1960s claimed tens of thousands of lives.
But with about 1,500 confirmed cases and about 120 deaths so far among Hong Kong's 7 million people, it isn't the sickness itself that has crippled the territory. The fear and panic are what have caused the real damage.
Containing this emotional response has become as much a priority here as combating the disease itself, as one of the world's great cities struggles to regain its balance.
"It's as much a confidence crisis as a medical crisis," said David Dodwell, executive director of Golin Harris Forrest, a Hong Kong-based consulting firm.
Either way, the toll is considerable.
Hong Kong's premier airline, Cathay Pacific, has cut 218 flights a day and is carrying about a third of its normal passenger volume. Some of the city's most prestigious hotels are operating at less than 10% occupancy. Restaurants and large retail stores limped along through March and much of April.
"It's really scary," admitted Cathay Pacific spokeswoman Lisa Wong.
Hong Kong's tourism industry -- which enjoyed a 19% growth in arrivals during the first 15 days of March compared with the same period last year -- fell by 10% for the second half of the month. With tour operators currently reporting drops of 80% to 90% in bookings, the only certainty is that April will be far worse, tourism officials say.
Only over Easter weekend was there a hint of revival, as good weather and a public holiday began to draw residents out of notoriously cramped living quarters.
For smaller businesses like Sezto's, which are reliant on tourism but have few reserves to fall back on, the SARS crisis is existential.
"We have enough to pay the staff this month, but I don't know how much longer we can last after that," Sezto said. She added that her company, Sze Creations, might be able to survive for a few months with money from a $1.51-billion government emergency support fund.
"But what then?" she asked.
In a worrisome sign for the future, buyers for international brands have stopped coming -- at least temporarily. These individuals purchase billions of dollars' worth of shoes, toys, apparel and electronic components from factories in mainland China's neighboring Guangdong province and then ship them through Hong Kong to destinations around the globe.
"There's been no real impact yet because there are a lot of orders still in the pipeline, but it raises questions about the future," said Frank Martin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
Public life has also wound down.
Earlier this month, schools were closed, and only some have reopened. Sporting events were scrapped. Trade fairs and exhibitions were postponed. Concerts were canceled (although the Rolling Stones donated $50,000 worth of surgical masks as a gesture of goodwill). Films played to near-empty houses.
At Hong Kong University, classes resumed in mid-April, but the language department canceled oral exams because they were judged to be impossible to conduct with both students and instructors wearing face masks.