Most of us have never experienced anything quite like this moment. But Sharon Eng and her husband, who today own a manufacturing company in Belmont, happened to find themselves in the middle of another disease outbreak, on the other side of the world, in 2003.
“My husband and I moved to Hong Kong in 1989, and we returned to the States in 2005,” said Eng. “So we got to see a lot of changes happen around the world. But in the latter part of our stay there, of course one of the most impactful changes, was when SARS hit.”
(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)
The 2003 SARS outbreak was centered in China and Hong Kong. In some ways, it followed a similar pattern to the coronavirus: an unknown illness spreading through close contact, causing respiratory distress, and potentially death.
At the time of the epidemic, Eng and her husband were raising three small children.
“We had in Hong Kong been hearing about people in China boiling vinegar to ward off a strange pneumonia that was going around,” she said. “We sort of laughed it off."
“And then the virus spread.”
Like many American states today, the government in Hong Kong began releasing SARS case counts. Eng remembers checking them in the local English language daily newspaper.
“We were terrified,” said Eng. “Everybody is looking at the death count, and we didn’t know how you would get it, we didn’t know how easy it was to get it. We only knew that we wanted to be protected from it, because they said it was really bad.”
Schools in Hong Kong were shut down for six weeks. Many of her friends in the expatriate community headed abroad. Eng and her family went to Thailand for three weeks, but then returned to Hong Kong.
She remembers wrestling cotton masks onto her kids so they could go to school, and training them not to touch anything.
“If we are out in public don’t touch things,” she told them. “Keep your hands in your pocket. Use your elbows when you want to press a button.”
Ultimately, the SARS outbreak spread to 26 countries, resulting in approximately 800 deaths.
As the virus faded, so did news coverage, and in a couple of years, Eng and her family returned to the United States.
“We are not from New Hampshire. But we decided we could live anywhere we wanted to and we picked New Hampshire, because it was pretty different from Hong Kong.”
Sharon and her husband settled first in Bow, and eventually purchased a small manufacturing business in Belmont called Contract Support Group, which makes electro-mechanical pieces that go into other equipment, like components that end up inside restaurant deep fryers.
With kids and the company to run, SARS became a distant memory.
Until it wasn’t.
“When we started hearing about the sickness in Wuhan, it made us think about SARS right away,” she said. “And my friends from Hong Kong and I, we noticed we immediately started social distancing.”
Eng began talking with her 16 employees about the risks, sharing her memories and the safety precautions she took during SARS.
And then in recent weeks, the coronavirus emerged in the U.S. Huge sectors of the economy have been shuttered. Eng said that ideally she would have been able to close down too, but because she’s in manufacturing and her customers continue to need parts, she’s felt obligated to stay open.
“I could sense amongst employees that there was fear about coming to work everyday, so you have to address fear with taking on facts and things that you can measure.”
Things you can measure. Like your temperature.
Eng asked her employees if they would be more comfortable if they were being regularly screened for a fever. Everyone on the factory floor agreed, so she got a temperate scanner, and now twice a day, “I go around to their work areas, just like a daily chat time, check in with them, how are they doing. And then it is temperature time.”
After each scan, her employees “have a habit of shouting out what their number is after I take their temperature.”
Eng knows this isn’t foolproof; she’s also provided employees with masks. But it has created a sense of calm, and some camaraderie.
So business carries on.
“While we are very strongly economically affected, we can’t fix the economics until we fix the public health problem,” she said. “We just have to knuckle down and take care of that first. And it requires all of us looking out for each other.”
Nearly twenty years on from living through SARS, that basic philosophy still holds.