The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Virus begins to infect social attitudes

Singapore, April 15 (Reuters): Shunned by taxi drivers, rejected at hotels, turned back at immigration counters, many people from SARS-hit Asian regions are discovering another symptom of the deadly SARS virus — discrimination.

In Hong Kong, residents in buildings afflicted by SARS complain of being turned away by private doctors as soon as they disclose their addresses. Ethnic Chinese in SARS-hit Toronto are quizzed on their health by neighbours, or shunned on the subway, while some taxi drivers in Taiwan avoid areas popular with mainland Chinese.

As it burrows into the lungs of thousands of people worldwide, the SARS virus also appears to be infecting social attitudes, provoking mild discrimination or even blatant racism.

In countries such as Singapore, a tiny island republic with the world’s fourth-highest number of infections of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, some residents say they fear being treated as pariahs if they travel abroad. “I’m staying here in Singapore because I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable,” said Cynthia Tan, a 29-year-old insurance broker.

Yeh Fu-lung, a taxi driver in Taipei, says he refuses to pick up Taiwan travellers who are returning from China. “A lot of these returning Taiwanese first take a shuttle bus from the airport into town, and then hail a cab. You can tell they’re coming back from China,” he said.

In the popular tourist destinations of Thailand all visitors from high-risk countries must wear surgical masks at all times or face a jail term or a fine, even if healthy. Malaysia, whose population is 30 per cent ethnic Chinese, no longer grants visas to people from mainland China, which has the world’s largest number of SARS infections. But Thailand’s and Malaysia’s dramatic measures are unlikely to stoke diplomatic anger in countries hit hard by SARS, such as China, said Dr Lam Peng Er, a researcher at the East Asia Institute of the National University of Singapore.

“Right now the situation is really medical. It’s an epidemic. I don’t think we should read too much into it,” he said. “The local people expect the government to act, and the governments have to appear to be acting. Until the situation really deteriorates, I think countries will deal with it very pragmatically,” Lam added.

But for many people in Asia, the feeling of being singled out at airports or isolated along ethnic lines is disturbingly new.

Ko Shiou Hee, an architect, said he was baffled when his Australian business partner quizzed him repeatedly about his health just days before leaving for Australia. “I actually didn’t know why he called me. I thought he was just concerned about my health,” he said. “But after speaking with a few people, I started to realise that my partner out of politeness actually didn’t tell me that he’s a bit concerned about me going there.”

Like Ko, others bristle at reports of Canadian shoppers staying clear of Toronto’s usually bustling Chinatown district or cab drivers avoiding ethnic Chinese. “I’m quite surprised to hear it from the Canadians, but maybe it’s because they are really feeling it with so many getting SARS there, ” said a Singapore photographer.

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