SARS Outbreak: China Sacks Top Officials, Cancels May Day

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - China has sacked two top officials and canceled May Day holidays in its most dramatic responses so far to the super-pneumonia epidemic, which it played down for months.

Beijing also reported 14 previously unannounced deaths and hundreds more cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the disease which originated in southern China last November and subsequently spread to almost 30 countries across the globe.

SARS has now killed more than 200 people in Asia and Canada, seriously damaged the Asian airline industry, and prompted analysts to scale back economic growth predictions in the region.

In other badly affected areas, Hong Kong, reported 12 deaths Saturday and another seven on Sunday, bringing its total to 88.

Singapore on Sunday ordered 2,400 people to be quarantined at home for 10 days as a precaution against having been infected by a sick man working at a busy vegetable market.

Reporting by Chinese authorities has been haphazard, incomplete, and widely criticized, by the World Health Organization (WHO) among others.

At the weekend, the Health Ministry announced an official nationwide infection count of 1,814, and a total death toll of 79.

Statistics for the capital alone were substantially higher than the previous figures given - 346 confirmed cases and 18 deaths. Until Sunday, the figures given for Beijing - a city of more than 10 million people - had been 44 cases and four deaths.

The revised Beijing toll was just one of a series of dramatic weekend announcements.

China's national health minister and the mayor of Beijing were both fired from senior Community Party positions. Loss of their government posts is seen as a formality.

The government has also cancelled the week-long May Day holiday, beginning on May 1, while acknowledging this could cause "great losses" to the country's tourism industry.

The annual May 1-7 holiday was approved by the government four years ago and millions of Chinese travel visit relatives over that period.

The authorities fear "the massive flow of people" could worsen the spread of SARS, executive vice health minister Gao Qiang told a press conference Sunday.

While not all local travel will be stopped, with the holiday itself canceled, most employees are expected to work as usual, and millions of students were instructed Sunday to stay on campus.

Gao said there was no evidence of an intentional cover-up of SARS statistics, but the government would give new figures daily from now on.

He also announced steps to ensure better reporting of SARS cases in Beijing, although the WHO raised questions about whether the same levels of transparency would be evident in outlying rural areas.

SARS has spread from the southern Guangdong province to at least a dozen more across the country.

Media changes

Before the weekend moves in Beijing, China's highest ruling body presided over by President Hu Jintao held an emergency meeting at which senior party and government figures were warned they would be held accountable for their handling of the outbreak in their respective jurisdictions.

The meeting also demanded "accurate, timely and honest reporting of the SARS situation," according to the official Xinhua news agency.

For many weeks, Chinese state-controlled media ignored the outbreak. On Monday, by contrast, the China Daily, Army Daily and Xinhua were running several news stories and features, including reports on the sackings and the May Day cancellation.

On the English homepage of the official People's Daily, seven out of ten headlines, including the main two stories, of dealt with SARS.

However, the paper also carried a commentary critical of "politicized" western media coverage, taking issue for example for the assertion that SARS started in south China.

"Just like AIDS was first reported in the United States, but one cannot say that the United States is the place of the origin of AIDS," it said.

The People's Daily is also running a message board, publishing sometimes surprisingly frank comments from readers in China and around the world.

Recent messages are critical of the "evil" government and its "moronic" media. One accuses the authorities of the "most stupid" behavior since "the era of lies and misinformation of the Cultural Revolution."

Prayers, cleansing programs in Hong Kong

There is no vaccine or known cure for SARS, which scientists have linked to the family of viruses associated with the common cold.

Respiratory problems, coughing and a high fever are among the symptoms.

In Hong Kong, the WHO has expressed concern that some of the victims are younger, previously healthy patients, unlike the situation earlier when mostly older, less-healthy people were succumbing.

The WHO and several governments around the world - including the U.S. - have advised against travel to Hong Kong and southern China.

In Hong Kong Sunday, large groups of Christians gathered to pray for health workers and for those stricken with SARS.

Members of the Hong Kong government joined in public cleansing programs in parts of the territory in a campaign to help increase awareness of the importance of environmental and personal hygiene.

Spread of the disease in Hong Kong had baffled experts, especially as a large cluster of infections emerge in a single housing estate, including cases in a number of apartments one atop the other.

One short-lived earlier theory held that cockroaches had carried the virus through the buildings, but a new investigation has pointed to human waste as the likely culprit.

The Hong Kong government said Friday a person who visited a relative in the apartment block in mid-March had displayed SARS symptoms. He had also suffered from diarrhea.

The combined effects of defective bathroom pipes, bathroom exhaust fans and a light-well to which bathroom windows opened appeared to have led to the rapid spread of infection to more than 200 other residents in the complex, the WHO said.

Initially, experts had thought the virus was only being carried by direct, close contact between ill people and their family members or health staff.

See also:
SARS Outbreak 'Worst Ever' Situation Faced By Asian Airlines (Apr. 15, 2003)
Rare Chinese Apology Over SARS Secrecy (Apr. 8, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow