A former Michigan student watches SARS change life in Shanghai.
Special to the Jewish News
ast summer, Jeff Lieberman, now 33, had
just graduated from the University of
Michigan Business School in Ann Arbor
and had a two-month fellowship to study
the Mandarin language in Shanghai, China. Early
into his fellowship, he landed a permanent job in-
Shanghai at a company that develops and measures
Lieberman, a Toronto native, had no idea that the
first severe and readily transmissible new disease of
the 21st century, severe acute respiratory syndrome
(SARS), was about to hit his new home country.
As of mid-June, 8,460 SARS cases have been
reported in 29 countries since last November. Some
5,326 have been in mainland China, according to
the World Health Organization. There is no vaccine
and no treatment for the disease. There have been
800 deaths from SARS.
The epidemic first emerged in Guangdong
Province, China. It soon spread to Hong Kong,
Vietnam, Singapore and around the world, includ-
Twice in April and once in early May, WHO
issued the toughest travel advisories in its 55-year
history when it recommended postponement of all
but essential travel to high-risk areas.
In Shanghai, there have only been eight SARS
cases according to WHO. This compares to 2,521
cases in Beijing, 800 miles away. This hasn't stopped
SARS from "having a huge impact on everyone's
lives and society in general," said Lieberman.
"There is a lot of panic among people here."
He started noticing changes in Shanghai a couple
of months ago. McDonald's has been passing out a
mask with every meal ("Mcmasks" he calls them),
and cartoon-like posters urging good hygiene fill the
The government has handed out 20,000 spit bags
in Shanghai and implemented fines to stem public
spitting, "a horrible habit," Lieberman said, that
comes from the belief that it is unhealthy to swallow
one's spit. •
In recent months, Lieberman has noticed more
hand washing. "People have become obsessed with
hygiene," he said.
Lieberman's tai-chi classes, held at a local university,
were cancelled, as were the English classes he was
teaching for middle school students
"Students at universities have practically been
made prisoners in their dormitories, not allowed to
leave campus for any but the most serious reasons,"
Lieberman said. "People are scared and panicky."'
He read on Cable News Network that the
Shanghai government was threatening death
sentences for anyone who knowingly spread
SARS by violating quarantine or refusing to
admit the symptoms.
Lieberman remains remarkably unphased.
He rarely wears a mask, has not stopped
traveling — despite government warnings
— and compares his chances of getting
SARS to those of getting eaten by a shark.
He may not have deliberately 'altered his
lifestyle, but life has inevitably changed.
Many of Lieberman's friends refuse to meet
in public places. With more people staying
home, the streets are less crowded. Probably
a fifth of the population wears a mask,
When he goes out to eat with friends and
colleagues, they are less likely to share dishes
than they were before SARS.
Recently, scientists identified the SARS
virus in some exotic animals sold as food in
China. While cats and dogs are commonly
eaten in Hong Kong and some Chinese
provinces, neither are common in Shanghai,
At most Shanghai buildings, someone will Jeff Lieberman could only wear a mask for 45 minutes.
take your temperature at the door, he said.
Even in Lieberman's own apartment build-
Nanjing and no reported cases of people catching
ing, life is different. He must show an identification
SARS from a bus," he said.
card, the elevators are sprayed four times daily with
In a rare move, he donned a mask while waiting at
vinegar, and the stench of acetic acid is overwhelm-
the bus station, but removed it after 45 minutes
after feeling suffocated.
"Oddly, I do feel safer here than I might at home"
There is mistrust about how the Chinese govern-
in Toronto, Lieberman said.
reports SARS. "Everyone thinks the number of
With 218 SARS cases to date, Canada has the
actual cases is much higher than what is reported,"
most cases outside Asia.
Friends have heard rumors that SARS was manu-
and spread by a joint U.S.-Taiwanese con-
Shanghai businesses have been negatively affected,
Obviously, fears of SARS have not displaced every
according to Lieberman. His company, Claes Fornell
connection. When Lieberman's mother sent
International (CFI), was on the verge of signing sev-
of matzah for Passover, he shared it with
eral contracts in Beijing and Hong Kong in late
while trying to explain Judaism to
February, but they have been postponed. Earnings
Jewish knowledge has come
for most Chinese businesses have been hit hard, and
such as The Pianist and
companies tend to cut spending in subsequent quar-
ters on market research programs, CFI's bread and
. Business etiquette has changed, too. Nodding
heads have replaced hand shakes.
Although many have succumbed to panic and
Editor's note: This interview took place via e-
fear, Lieberman is "not even the slightest bit wor-
mail on May 30. In a followup e-mail
ried." But, "It really bothers me how panicked
Lieberman wrote that "fear and paranoia levels
everyone has become over SARS, especially in
in Shanghai seem to have lessened and there
Shanghai when there are so few cases."
are fewer masks on the street." The school where
He recently traveled to Nanjing, three hours away
he teaches English was set to re-open mid-June.
by bus. Everyone was telling him that he shouldn't
travel, that it was very dangerous. "This is despite
the fact that there were zero cases of SARS in