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SARS fears spur stronger measures

Beijing closes movie houses; Toronto fights travel warning.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2003


Zhang Mei is usually out the door at 7:30 a.m. But she has been at home for a week, watching TV for updates on a flu that has depopulated this crowded capital.

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Zhang says she is not comfortable riding public transport. But also, because everyone in her apartment complex is watching closely, she doesn't want to go out and raise suspicions that she will bring back a virus.

"I don't want to take the blame," says the retired Chinese-language teacher. "This building has no SARS cases. But what we hear on the news is scaring us."

A week after two high-level Chinese Party members were fired, and health officials began to issue figures suggesting Beijing may rival Hong Kong in the cases of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, city residents are on an emotional roller coaster, staying close to the phone and hearing from long-lost friends.

Around the world, cities from Toronto to Singapore took new measures this weekend to confront the spread of a disease that has taken a significant economic and psychological toll:

• Taiwan announced it would quarantine foreigners arriving from SARS-affected countries for 10 days, while Taiwanese arriving from those countries would have to stay at home.

• Singapore, which announced one more SARS death over the weekend, bringing its total to 22, said it would close and disinfect dozens of food centers and markets today. It will also bar visitors to public hospitals.

• In Beijing, state media said officials had ordered the closure of cinemas, dance halls, and Internet bars.

• In Toronto, which fought back last week when the World Health Organization's issued an advisory to avoid travel to the city, officials were encouraged by announcements that the agency is reconsidering its warning. Twenty people have died of SARS in Canada.

Worldwide, there are nearly 4,900 SARS cases in 29 countries. SARS has killed at least 318 people worldwide. The highest numbers of deaths have been in Hong Kong, where 133 people have died, and China, where the total is 131.

The international standard to classify an outbreak as an "epidemic" is 1 percent of a population. China has 1.3 billion people, but only 2,914 SARS cases; Beijing has a population of 13 million, with 1,114 cases, according to the World Health Organization.

Confirmed cases in the city are rising by about 100 a day. Some 17 hospitals are now designated for SARS treatment; 4,000 people are quarantined. Twenty-one of China's 36 provinces have reported cases.

Despite the continued climb in the number of cases, the head of the WHO said Sunday that there was still time to stem the global spread of SARS if affected countries take appropriate measures.

"We still have a chance to contain it and to have it go down in places where outbreaks are already happening and avoid it spreading to new countries," Gro Harlem Brundtland told the BBC.

In many places, dealing with rumors has been as much a challenge as the disease itself. In Hong Kong, police said they were investigating an e-mail hoax claiming the virus had been found in the air filters of subway trains. In Beijing, a daily mix of official facts and popular rumors - for example, that helicopters are pouring disinfectants onto the city at night - makes for sharp mood swings.