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First SARS, Then SAFS

May 03, 2003

Fear is a funny word. Not funny ha-ha, but funny strange. Fear is so rubbery -- expanding or contracting to grip the scale of its targets. We can fear being late, which is not a big deal, and we can fear terrorists, which is their goal. Recently we're fearing several things, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, which wouldn't be half as scary without that ominous, headline-fitting acronym, SARS.

Liu Jianlun, a Chinese doctor, unwittingly portaged the SARS virus from China's Guangdong province to the ninth floor of Hong Kong's Metropole Hotel, where he deposited those invisible vermin on other travelers, probably through a simple elevator sneeze.

The rest is not quite yet history. Thanks to air travel, ignorance and official Chinese fears of the public relations effect more than the disease, SARS got a head start, jumping to at least 25 countries. Its high fever and harsh cough resemble symptoms of common flu until the fatal part.

SARS has infected only about 5,000 people worldwide. But SAFS -- severe acute fear syndrome -- has infected millions. We've got the instant global communications down fine. Now we need to work on more judicious repetition and discerning digestion of frightening news. TV's insatiable commercial demand for stories that grip coveted viewers may well heighten fears as well as awareness.

SARS has claimed fewer than 400 people globally, fewer than American drivers kill on a holiday weekend. So far, China has reported about 180 fatalities among its billion-plus residents. By unthinking consumption of TV's continuous coverage of this invisible infection, much as in the desperate duct-tape-buying contagion last winter, we allow that medium's immediacy to pack both an unspoken urgency and an unwarranted visual credibility.

True, warnings for SARS, terror and storms can be important, even if in hindsight they are seen as overblown. And there is no law against uninformed speculation as entertainment, even if ensuing corrections never reach everyone who heard the initial false cause for worry.

Perhaps SAFS helped curb SARS. It's good to be cautious but not panicked. SAFS caused incalculable economic damage from Beijing to Toronto.

Invisibility spawns the worst fears. Unseen, silently stalking kidnappers, sharks, chemical weapons, West Nile-carrying mosquitoes and radiation spark special fright. No serum yet for invisibility fears, except taking a deep, if masked, breath and recalling childhood. Probably more than one youngster in history expressed fears of "Wahs," invisible monsters suspected of lurking in darkness with the life purpose of jumping out suddenly to yell, "Wah!"

Still unseen by any but masked microbiologists, SARS is the latest wah to jump from the dark TV tube to infect our imaginations for a while.

Like each fall's flu, others will surely follow. It may be useful, as an equally invisible antidote, to recall regularly that although we outgrow juvenile clothes and innocence, even grown-ups remain susceptible to the childhood fear of invisible wahs.

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