HONG KONG – The front-line doctors and nurses battling the outbreak of a deadly flu-like virus in Hong Kong have become heroes here, as police and firefighters were to New Yorkers in the days after Sept. 11.
At the local version of the Academy Awards on Sunday, celebrities paid tribute to the medical workers fighting severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which has killed 25 people and sickened more than 900 in Hong Kong.
Almost one quarter of the city's SARS cases are medical workers who caught the disease on the job.
"On behalf of Hong Kong's showbiz industry and the public, I salute our medical workers," said host and comedian Eric Tsang at the Hong Kong Film Awards. He thanked the doctors and nurses three times before bowing at the show's start. "We are proud of you."
Tsang said the war in Iraq and the spread of SARS in Hong Kong had made him wonder whether it was appropriate for him to host the awards program.
"But after I saw on television how an infected doctor who had just recovered saying he would go right back into the wards — I knew that the show must go on," Tsang said.
More than 64,000 people have signed a card being circulated around in e-mails, with a picture of hands holding up a torch to express support and boost the morale of front-line medical workers. Yahoo.com in Hong Kong, which initiated the card, plans to print it and send it to 42 hospitals.
Some here drew comparisons to New York City's heroes of the World Trade Center disaster.
The New York firefighters lost colleagues, yet "all they cared about was saving as many lives as possible, ignoring that they were also in a very dangerous situation," said Kam Bak, a 40-year-old clerk. "Hong Kong's medical workers are the same."
SARS has killed at least 104 people and infected more than 2,600 worldwide.
In Hong Kong, the disease has spread unchecked. Now medical authorities are preparing for as many as 3,000 SARS patients to fill Hong Kong's hospitals should the epidemic spread even more rapidly.
No hospital workers are known to have died, but many of those who have recovered have gone right back to work in the SARS wards.
Ko Mei-lin, a 39-year-old office assistant, said she was moved to tears by televised images of medical workers who had been struck by the illness.
"This disease is so terrifying, but they are still undaunted and continue to take care of patients," Ko said, speaking like many thousands of others here from behind a surgical mask that she hopes will protect her from SARS.
Dr. Gavin Joynt, director of the intensive care unit at hard-hit Prince of Wales Hospital, questioned the hero treatment.
"I don't particularly feel like a hero at all," said Joynt, whose team is treating 20 ICU patients, six of them medical staff. "We are all stressed, but we are doing our job."
The hospital's own chief executive, Dr. Fung Hong, is the latest to be stricken with the disease. He was in stable condition Monday.
Many in Hong Kong appear to have little faith in the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and some analysts say doctors and nurses have filled a void left by Tung's perceived lack of leadership.
"At the moment, people are not pulling together behind the government," said Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University who specializes in gauging public opinion. "People are pulling together with each other and behind the doctors and nurses who have put their lives on the line."