With the specter of an influenza pandemic looming, SARS, the acute respiratory virus that swept through China (with brief appearances in Singapore, Hanoi, and Toronto) back in 2003, may seem trifling, but Karl Taro Greenfeld’s account of the epidemic, China Syndrome, turns out to be a work of riveting, relevant journalism. SARS, it suggests, is the harbinger of things to come.
During those panic-stricken, surgical-mask-wearing months in early ’03, Greenfeld, the then editor in chief of HK-based Time Asia, helped lead a team of mainland reporters who exposed the Chinese government’s negligent response to the virus. (The state literally hid patients from the WHO.) Now, he returns to the subject with a dexterous approach that recalls Randy Shilts’s AIDS history And the Band Played On. Greenfeld takes on epidemiology, sociology, political science, and even anthropology. His wide-ranging reporting puts him in touch with everyone from the peasants who were the first victims to the scientists who competed to get a handle on the disease. It’s a portrait of a country in freewheeling transition—a time marked by mass migrations, rapid industrialization, expanding wealth, and a crumbling health care system. It’s no coincidence that the crucible for SARS was the swelling cities of China’s Guangdong province, home to the Pearl River Delta factories.
The spread of SARS is the story of worlds colliding: one, an Industrial Revolution–style China with all the Dickensian trappings of poverty and disease; the other, the globalized 21st century, in which people—and viruses—can jump oceans in less than 24 hours. The only bulwark, at least in this saga, is the Chinese government, which is hampered by a system of state secrecy that is both brilliant and shortsighted in its effectiveness. Two decades after Shilts showed us the crippling effects of such secrecy, Greenfeld reminds us that denial and disease are perfect bedfellows.