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Global Responses to SARS Health Crisis

SARS and the Fear Factor Global Responses to a Health Crisis

McCann PulseTM is McCann-Erickson WorldGroup’s proprietary service for monitoring the social and cultural forces that affect consumers and their attitudes towards advertising and marketing communications. The Pulse network has been tracking the opinions of marketing experts and the feelings of consumers in more than 30 markets around the globe during the past few weeks on the outbreak and globalisation of the SARS epidemic. In addition monitoring of consumer response to the war in Iraq and the relative importance of the two events to consumers has continued. This analysis is based primarily on discussions with consumers of all ages but with a priority on Career Builders (20-something professionals) and Family Builders (parents of young children) along with various Observers of Change.

Introduction The Asian Problem … that is going global War won’t go away Surge of Fear Speed of Disaster Authorities in Doubt The Mask Mutants Marketing Recommendations


Beginning in China and Hong Kong in February the spread of SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) has taken the world by surprise as much for the fast spread of concern and intense public response as the speed of it’s spread across the world. Response to the threat of SARS has at the same time varied greatly across countries. The ongoing war in Iraq and it’s seeming conclusion has acted as counterweight of interest that has continued to dominate headlines and public interest in some countries.

Not surprisingly we find that in countries where there have been no SARS outbreaks or relatively few the Iraq situation continues to hold the public interest. And we have seen that in some countries local issues have begun to insert themselves as being as interesting to the public as the war seemed to be rushing to a conclusion. The Iraq situation continues to polarize people and the relatively quick victories of the USA, UK and Australian coalition forces have not abated debate as to whether there should have been a war in the first place. However most consumer comments revolve around their personal media choice and how they are trying, and continue to get the best and fairest coverage of the events.

For an increasing number of markets, centering on East Asia but certainly spreading as far as Canada and Switzerland SARS quickly became the key story and issue of the last few weeks.

Misinformation from China about the sources, number of cases and the seriousness of the threat of the outbreak have both clouded judgment and raised concerns among consumers in many markets. In Hong Kong the perceived slowness of the government to react and take strong measures to control the spread of the disease has led to a public anxiety level unsurpassed in recent times.

“ Forget about Scud missiles and smart bombs, we could all die if someone with the disease merely coughs.” (Hong Kong Career Builder)

A feeling of near helplessness overcame the city

‘One night I saw that they hadn’t cleared the garbage and the next day some people here got atypical pneumonia. You can’t be too scared. I’m quite scared, but there’s nothing I can do.’ (Hong Kong Family Builder)

The quick adoption of face masks as compulsory wear by much of the population was clear evidence of concern, but also acted to raise fears. Indeed face mask wearing has become a daily part of life now for not only the Hong Kong people but also those of other Asian cities. Even in Jakarta where no outbreaks had occurred schools were making the wearing of masks mandatory. The line between preventative measures and adding to stress and panic has proved to be very fine.

The Asian Problem … that is going global

The relevance and intensity of interest and concern over the SARS epidemic is not surprisingly correlated to the number of victims within a market or it’s perceived likely involvement.

McCann PULSE has found that spreading from its “ base” in southern China and Hong Kong there are a number of levels of concern:

Greater China: As the base of the problem and with by far the greatest number of victims Greater China consumers are seemingly all consumed by SARS. In Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei it is the number one subject of conversation. And in each market there are continuing waves of deep concern as new figures become available. In Guangzhou and Hong Kong frustration with seeming government secrecy and lethargy have increased concern.

Strong anti-government feelings are common and increasing daily as it becomes plainer that the Chinese government authorities have held back on the real number of cases.

Prevention, and the desire to be seen to be doing something, are often offset by a feeling of helplessness. In Hong Kong in particular SARS has come across as the latest in a series of disasters over recent years that seem to have doomed Hong Kong to a long steady decline in fortune.

In SE Asia: Governments have been seen to be making strong measures to try and prevent the spread of the disease. With mixed results. The swift action of the Singaporean and Malaysian governments has met strong support among consumers. In particular people have welcomed measures to limit or heavily regulate the flow of travelers and tourists from the more heavily effected countries. But this has also resulted in a surge of anti-China sentiment with consumers often talking about the Chinese government being to blame.

Open criticism on the China governments seeming cover up was heard everywhere...

‘I am not surprised. The Chinese government never tells the truth. I heard that they only report 1 death for every 10 die.’ Male Career Builder

Across SE Asia there has been a wave of interest in precautionary measures. While less “ dictated” than in Hong Kong the use of masks, renewed awareness in cleaning habits etc are all part of a sustained interest in prevention techniques.

Japan & Korea: Surprisingly in the two key north Asia markets consumers are aware of the SARS problem and take it seriously but are not treating it with the intensity some observers had assumed would be the case. There has not been a much greater use of face masks in public than is normal in countries where their use when someone has a cold is quite normal. The War and in particularly the continuing potential crisis with North Korea have continued to be of much more interest and every day concern for consumers while SARS has played more of a constant background role in their minds.

Australia & New Zealand: Peoples’ reaction to SARS has been high awareness though with no greater concern than for the war. The governments of both countries are seen to be doing “ the right things” to try and prevent the greater introduction of the disease from travelers. There is however a growing sentiment of hostility to “ yet another threat to our way of life”. And a vocal minority is feeling that the “ glorious isolation ” of the two countries is once again under threat. This has led to some people talking about how to take long-term steps to prevent these intrusions in the future.

North America : The quick and relatively heavy spread of SARS in Canada has had an impact on consumers in a number of ways. Particularly in the heavily effected cities like Toronto anti-Chinese sentiment has quickly come to the fore. Both ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese consumers are reporting some hostility. The focus is falling on the Chinese government but is also being reflected as consumers talk of not going to Chinese restaurants for fear of contamination. Certainly SARS has transplanted the War in the last two weeks as the key story to be followed in the media.

In the USA interest is not so high though awareness of the epidemic is widespread. The Iraq situation has remained the focal point of interest and public discussion with SARS being seen more as “ interest” story. However there is growing concern that this is yet another example of the uncertainty in today’s world.

Latin America : Probably because cases of SARS have been very small in Latin America consumer interest has not been very high. What is seen as an Asian problem seems very far away and less of a threat or of importance than the continued interest in the Iraq War and consumer discussion of what the result will mean in terms of economy, American power and it’s effect on their own countries.

Europe : Awareness of SARS is high, though response to the issue and concern is subdued. The Iraq situation is still the main interest story of the moment though it is being tempered in many countries by the emergence of a local issue of some kind or another. It would seem that for European consumers the common feeling is that the Iraq war is still wrong, but now boring or passé, SARS is something happening elsewhere for the most part and there is growing interest “ in the next issue”.

However interest and concern in SARS does differ across markets usually sparked by local events feeding off the issue. So in Switzerland interest was piqued in connection with a long debate about letting Hong Kong delegates attend a major jewellery and watch industry fair. In Germany interest grew with the discovery that a Hong Kong businessman with SARS symptoms flew on a number of Lufthansa flights in one week.

What has become clear around the world is that people consider these highly sensitized times. It takes little to get concerns for personal safety growing….

“ The war feels pretty much linked to this disease. Everything feels out of control. It’s all a bit Armageddon at the moment: 2 of the 3 Apocalyptic horsemen are abroad: war and pestilence. Next story will be famine ….. and then it’s all over rover.” - New Zealand Career Builder

“ The greatest overall fear of the public is not the present, but how the situation will develop in the future” - Taiwan Family Builder

In the post 9/11 world where the media seems to be able to focus with intensity on a new crisis and personal threat on a regular basis people are always wary and looking for signs of threat.

The continued backdrop of the War in Iraq and the seeming conclusion of regular warfare is tempered by consumer concerns that a resolution is a long way off.

“ It is no longer novel … it is now a matter of waiting for the war to end “ – Brazilian NLB on the war in Iraq.

In light of the seeming anarchy as the regular war comes to an end people continue to debate the rights and wrongs of the conflict. The end of regular fighting is treated with a relief and sadness as consumers hope that life and economies will recover along with a growing debate as to what was achieved. A feeling of “ thank god that that is over” is tempered by a continuing image that all it means is that the next thing big threat to safety will arise. And with that comes continuing frustration…. Especially with governments and their seeming continued deception or ignoring of the public …

“That would be very hypocritical and I’d feel annoyed if people started boycotting British produce because of our involvement in the war; it is not the everyday man on the streets’ fault that the politicians don’t listen; but it is him who will ultimately suffer.” - UK male New Life Builder (anti-war)

In most of the world the war continued to dominate headlines throughout the last three weeks. However both McCann PULSE TM and a Universal McCann Connections study have found that consumers are as concerned about the nature of the coverage of the war as they are about its result.

“ It’s especially hard to get a real picture of events like these. Due to media coverage coming from American TV stations and so forth. I feel like we never really hear the truth so it is hard to have an opinion” – New Zealand Family Builder

In most of Asia interest in the war remained a steady backdrop to the increasing importance of SARS as the key story of the day. The international media were often criticized as placing too little emphasis on SARS and neglecting what was seen by many Asians as a more important and imminently life threatening situation. Consumers also criticized the news medias “ sudden interest” when the Iraq situation seemed to have been settled. And again criticized the media for picking up and placing more emphasis on what consumers saw as peripheral issues such as the proliferation of patterned and logo covered face masks …

“ They pick up on these supposedly funny things because they make good pictures but do not report enough about the causes and the suffering” – Hong Kong Career Builder

Public reaction to the spreading of SARS in Asia has been exceptional in its speed and intensity. The mysterious nature of SARS, the early lack of information from governments and the dire warnings from the medical profession and WHO all accentuated public concerns …

When medical experts do not have a clue, ordinary people are really scared.

It is a holocaust. It is a war with an unknown enemy. My hands have shaken for two nights. It is the worst medical disaster I have ever seen.’ Professor Sydney Chung, Dean of Medicine at Chinese University of Hong Kong, end of March

Adding to the situation were both a constant round of speculation about the cause SARS and a seeming desire to be able to do something to protect oneself. The most common reaction by consumers across Asia in particular has been a desire to be able to do something ( the wearing of masks, the quick reaction to public clean up campaigns, the dramatic changes in lifestyle such as staying home, cutting back on social and work meetings, the dire effects on travel ). All of which seems to have come from a deep-seated fear that the individual is increasingly helpless …

“ I don’t know if I can achieve that much when there are so many dangers in the world like SARS and wars. I worry all the time that the world is getting harder to live in” - Guangzhou Family Builder

“ The world is certainly a more messed up place than it was five years ago” – New Zealand Family Builder

“ The Speed of Disaster ”

This headline, from a statement by a Singaporean consumer, sums up the bewilderment of many people and the predicament that the modern world now faces. The fast spread of SARS through infected people traveling internationally has highlighted both the benefit of easy access to the world and it’s dangers. The travel industry has been hardest hit as airlines, hotels, tourism in general all suffer from concerns that the actual act of traveling has become a danger. Of course in the post 9/11 world the many potential dangers of travel beyond mechanical problems have been made more obvious to all. Now SARS has highlighted a darker, “ hidden” concern.

“ You never know when you might be effected. Something like SARS you cannot fight because you cannot see it. But there is also terrorism, which I as an individual can do nothing about either. So travel is now a more dangerous thing” – Philippine Career Builder

Consumers in many markets are talking about the continued nature of these threats. Modern communications and travel be it the speed and frequency of personal travel, the movement of couriered and posted material, or the need in close packed cities to travel in crowded public transport systems are increasing worries that SARS may be only the latest and potentially not the worst of diseases and germ warfare threats that our modern lifestyle actually eases into reality.

Authorities in Doubt

Who to trust and who to turn to for advice and information has become a major topic of conversation.

Already the Iraq war had got many people talking about governments ignoring public wishes. SARS has highlighted to many that prejudices not to trust government were well founded. People in many countries have criticized particularly the actions of the Chinese government.

The global press has been called in to doubt for only being interested when it suited them.

Medical authorities have also been questioned. Surprisingly given the high number of medical staff who have fallen ill or died in heavily effected countries like China and Hong Kong the medical profession has not received much sympathy or “ hero status ” for their efforts …

“ I think the doctors should be able to do more … with all these hospitals and medicines today why can’t they protect us better” – Hong Kong Family Builder

WHO has also been criticized by people in a number of countries for not being able to take a more definitive lead in either finding a cure or limiting the spread of the disease. This may seem unfair but also suggests that consumers are recognizing a void in international relations and governments where getting someone to organize a global relief program becomes very hard…

“ You would think this would be something the United Nations could do more about ” – Australia New Life Builder

“ Why can’t we get more governments or even companies to work together more on major crisis like this … people are dying and are scared and we should be able to have a more organized answer” - Singaporean Career Builder

The Mask Mutates

The desire to protect oneself and uncertainty over what could and should be done has seen a swift evolution in the use of face masks. While the use of face masks by people suffering from colds has been common in some Asian cities for some time this was also a novelty and more concerned with a social politeness to prevent the infection of others.

In the first weeks of public awareness of the SARS threat we saw a rush on face mask wearing first in relatively high incidence markets like Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Of course the psychology of mask wearing has gone through a number of stages. At first it might have been seen as scary to others …

“ People who show up with mask in public area would receive discriminatory eyes. ” - Guangzhou Career Builder “ I will feel everybody looks at me discriminatory, and so do I look at others in the same way if he wears mask. ”

So in the first few days people told us that wearing a mask might have imparted some guilt. However this quickly changed to feelings of compulsion and mistrust …

“ If you don’t wear a mask you never know … you have to take precautions.”

“ Wearing a mask may not stop it but if everyone wears one then it has to be a bit safer”

Of course there were some who took longer and were more skeptical of mask wearing, especially among the ex-patriot communities. However within a week of the first serious reports mask wearing in effected cities was normal.

We quickly saw the growth of patterned, designer and logo masks. Certainly the great majority of people kept to plain masks but the incidence of patterned ones was seen by some consumers as a sign that …

“ masks are here to stay … SARS is only the beginning. I think in future we will keep having things like this happen and people will get a lot more used to wearing masks at different times” - Hong Kong Career Builder

It would seem that people have already become accustomed to the idea that the world will be constantly threatening and that coping with and preparing for these threats be it from new diseases, wars or terrorism is a part of life they feel they have to try and deal with as best as they can.

© Scoop Media

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