Friday, August 1, 2003

Staying online after SARS

Posted Fri, 01 Aug 2003 (

Hong Kongers who turned to the internet for entertainment during the devastating SARS outbreak have continued surfing in cyberspace more than a month after the crisis passed, a survey found on Thursday.

Peter Steyn, sales and marketing director for Nielsen Netratings, said the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had a profound effect on internet audiences between late-March to May.

Record highs

"Traffic to internet sites for shopping, banking, news, medical information and education grew to record highs as people stayed at home and looked for ways to continue with their lives online," said Steyn.

At the height of the crisis in April, numbers of active internet users rose 13 percent from the previous month, the fastest month-on-month increased in over two years, with Hong Kong users spending on average 22.5 hours online compared with about 16 hours a month in the six months prior to SARS.

Significant increase

Steyn noted while internet usage after the SARS crisis had decreased slightly from their peak, figures for June still showed a significant increase over February, the month before SARS struck.

"For example, websites in the banking sector saw a huge 26 percent increase in users in June over February, translating into an increase in audience reach of three percentage points," he said.

Travel sites avoided

Not all websites benefited from the increased internet usage during the crisis with users avoiding travel sites, as they put off vacations for fear of contracting the deadly virus on board airplanes.

"However, with the all-clear signal in June, audiences to travel sites increased by 37 percent compared with April, as people took advantage of a variety of travel deals," he said.

"There is little doubt that internet audiences post-SARS have reached significantly higher levels than before the epidemic," said Steyn. "The question now is whether these gains will be sustained in the longer term."

Second worst hit SARS region

Hong Kong was the world's second worst hit SARS region with at least 297 deaths from nearly 1800 infections. It was removed from the World Health Organization's list of SARS-affected areas on June 23.

The 13-week outbreak battered Hong Kong's retail and restaurant businesses as many of the city's 6.8 million residents donned surgical masks and steered clear of crowded shopping malls to avoid contracting the deadly pneumonia-like virus.

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