Former Hong Kong fencer Maria Chan Siu-san – an Amoy Gardens Sars survivor who spent five days in intensive care 17 years ago – says she is neither a hero nor a role model amid the coronavirus crisis and is urging Hongkongers to learn from the mistakes that caused her infection in 2003.
Chan has been praised by Hong Kong’s world No 8 épée star Vivian Kong Man-wai for social media posts advising Hong Kong people to wash their hands and avoid public places to minimise the risk of infection.
But the 46-year-old former Asian Games athlete – who in 2003 was a resident at the infamous Amoy Gardens estate in Kowloon where 42 people died from Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) with 329 infected – said she was not a good example of how to behave during a health crisis.
“It was kind words by Vivian but I really don’t consider myself a hero nor a role model,” Chan told the SCMP. “In fact, I would advise people to do exactly the opposite of what I did back then.
“I was careless, I didn’t wear a mask, I was going to shopping malls where there were crowds. I thought only people who were sick wore masks and I didn’t have any at home and didn’t have any hand sanitisers.”
Chan said she may have caught the disease from a woman who sneezed on her face at a mall, though doctors were never able to confirm the transmission history for her case.
“It was just before the Amoy Gardens problems started and people said there was no community outbreak.
“So I advise Hong Kong people to stay home, avoid crowds, and if you have to go out wear a mask. Wash your hands regularly. Don’t do what I did.”
Last week, Hong Kong Olympian Kong posted a message on Facebook praising Chan after the 1995 and 1997 Asian Championship bronze medallist gave a rare interview to one of the local Chinese-language media outlets.
“Infinite thank yous and infinite love and kisses to Maria Chan for being such a strong, grateful, positive, and beautiful fencer, fighter and role model,” Kong wrote. “Sending hugs, loves and kisses to everyone! with my mask on!!! will send more without my mask on very very soon!!
“This coronavirus is scary – because I get scared very easily – but we got this!”
Sars is reported to have killed 813 people and infected 8,437 worldwide, most of them in China. In Hong Kong, 299 people died among the 1,755 infected.
Amoy Gardens was the centre of attention during the crisis with more infections and deaths in a specific area than anywhere else in the world.
At the time, Chan lived in Block F, next to notorious Block E where the localised outbreak started. More than 200 people from Block E were infected and 22 died. Blocks B, C and D also suffered significant infection rates.
“From outside my window, I could throw a coin to the residents of Block E, we were that close,” said Chan, who is thankful that none of her family was infected during the outbreak.
She was 29 when she contracted Sars and was at the height of her fencing career, having been a full-time Hong Kong Sports Institute athlete for five years. She was among the first batch admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital on March 29, 2003 – the very day the hospital was designated as Hong Kong’s headquarters for Sars treatment.
“What I’ve learned after these 17 years [amid the new coronavirus crisis] is to do my part,” said Chan, who now works for a company that provides post-career advice and opportunities for former athletes.
“If I know there is a possibility of a community outbreak – avoid crowds, wash hands regularly, wear a mask and perform other basic duties to avoid infection. I didn’t do my part during Sars and so I cannot blame anyone else.”
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