SARS Concerns Spread in Newsrooms

By: Joe Strupp

With the war in Iraq winding down, foreign correspondents are turning their attention to a different battle, which may prove equally deadly and more difficult to cover. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has turned life upside down in many Asian cities, as well as Toronto, where dozens of cases are turning up each day and deaths continue to mount.

The health and safety of reporters and editors, particularly in the heavily hit areas around Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore, is a prime concern that already has caused some journalists to relocate family members and others to work from home and don surgical masks. And last week, back in the United States, Seattle Times business columnist Stephen Dunphy was asked to work at home for a few days after covering a local trade delegation’s recent trip to Shanghai.

“We are trying to keep our [foreign] reporters physically far from the virus,” said John Bussey, a deputy managing editor for The Wall Street Journal who oversees its Hong Kong office, where wearing masks became mandatory for all staffers April 1. “We are also encouraging them to avoid crowded places in Hong Kong and have restricted plane travel.” The Journal has 56 full-time newspeople in Hong Kong — and more than 100 throughout Asia — that report for its U.S., European, and Asian editions, as well as Dow Jones Newswires. Many Journal staffers in the Asian bureaus are working from home, said Bussey, who added that contingency plans are in the works to produce the Asian edition from the Journal‘s New York and New Jersey facilities if the Hong Kong bureau is shut down: “We are on a communications network easily accessed from remote locations.”

Elsewhere in Asia, journalists are using masks as well, at least in crowded locations and inside hospitals, editors said. Others have worked from home when needed. “We are asking people to follow local health guidelines,” said Phil Bennett, assistant managing editor for foreign news at The Washington Post. And Marjorie Miller, foreign editor at the Los Angeles Times, said her paper had distributed masks to all Asian bureaus, but stopped short of mandating their use. “It is up to them how to handle it,” she said. “At this point, no one has asked to leave, but some people are changing travel to avoid some areas.”

Editors at The Associated Press said they have distributed masks to all Asian-based journalists, and some AP bureaus are having their doors and furniture wiped regularly with bleach. AP staffers also have been washing their hands after touching taxi and bus doors, elevator buttons, and escalator railings.

Erik Eckholm, Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times, said he is wearing a mask, gloves, and a gown when he visits hospitals, but not on a daily basis outside. “Life has been pretty normal otherwise,” he said. “They did cancel a Rolling Stones concert I had tickets to, so that upset me.”

Ellen Nakashima, who is reporting from Singapore for The Washington Post, said she also wears protective clothing at hospitals, but not elsewhere. “The airport is almost empty, and people are staying home a lot more,” she noted. “And taxi drivers watch who they pick up.”

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