SARS fears spur stronger measures

Beijing closes movie houses; Toronto fights travel warning.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

"There are two things you don't mess with when it comes to the Chinese - money and health," says a Western expert here. "This situation is affecting both."

This weekend, former President Jiang Zemin - still a very powerful figure in China - weighed in on a crisis that developed when he was at the nation's helm. The Communist Party is "highly responsible" for the people's welfare, he said.

Until a few days ago, only President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were identified among top leaders as saying anything about a disease that has brought unexpected waves of anger and distrust among people in Beijing. Now, most of the nine Standing Committee members have had themselves identified as saying something supportive about efforts to stop SARS.

Since April 20, China has taken an pro-active approach to SARS, after weeks spent denying a problem. Informed sources here say that Beijing officials knew months ago that SARS had reached their city from south China.

Many were individuals seeking treatment in Beijing. Yet rather than interrupt or alarm top party officials on the eve of the annual People's Congress in March, sources say, information about the illness was kept quiet, and some officials hoped the problem would disappear. As it did not, and as cases began to spread, worries mounted at high levels for weeks over a crisis that began to slide into a cover-up.

According to the Washington Post Sunday, Messrs. Hu and Wen were not informed early, though Jia Qinglin, former Beijing Party Secretary and one of the nine top Standing Committee officials, was.

Some China watchers speculate that a faction loyal to former President Jiang may be readying themselves to attack Hu and Wen once the SARS crisis is over. Others feel the two new leaders - who came to power on March 19 - can use the crisis to shake up the system.

Meanwhile, daily life in Beijing is dramatically different. Only 10 days ago, Beijingers spoke of SARS as something happening in another country. Sunday, however, the Landau shopping intersection, a heavily traveled zone of fast food spots and computer and department stores - was empty. Beijing International Airport continues to be jammed with departures, but nearly bereft of arrivals.

Most noticeable is a wide array of penetrating medicinal smells in airport departure lounges, elevators, and foyers.

A saleswoman says she came to work as people no one knew were swabbing the floor with a watery mixture. And Dettol, a popular disinfectant, is sold out.

Vegetable shops sell out of white turnips used in Chinese medicine. Migrant workers have headed for the countryside where they hear it is safer. Expatriate students and teachers are departing. Foreign firms hold staff meetings outside. People keep a distance and worry about being ostracized if they sneeze or cough.

Some Chinese parents are ordering offspring to leave crowded dorms here in Beijing, and come home. But those returning may face difficulty reentering life in their hometowns.

"My neighbors told my family that if I came back to live, they would move to other places," reported one young woman who was called home. For now, she is living with friends in a rented room for a 10-day period of quarantine.

• Material from the wires was used in this report.

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