SARS in China

Political, Economic, and Social Overtones

by Kim Petersen

Dissident Voice

April 29, 2003


It was late coming but the Chinese government has finally begun to aggressively tackle fēidiǎn, as they call Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China. China TV is replete with stories of the new flu-like killer. The story is bigger than the health implications. It has significance for the economy of a developing nation.  The development of the Chinese economy is important as a successful model antithetical to the Washington consensus.


The fallout from the battle against SARS is a fortress mentality in Beijing now. The Golden week holiday has been canceled. Many universities, schools, embassies, cinemas, and internet cafes are closed; gyms are sparsely frequented. A third hospital was closed. Police ring some hospitals and the penalty is high if caught violating any quarantine. Political heads are rolling over the handling of the SARS epidemic and the misreporting of the number of cases; Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong and the Health Minister Zhang Wenkang are early casualties.


The reality -- of which I needed no convincing -- of SARS in China came closer to home when my wife and I were quarantined for a period of ten days. The reason for the pre-cautionary quarantine was because of my trip to Beijing a few days earlier. At the time of writing this it is day six of the quarantine on the campus of a foreign language school in Ningbo, a city situated on the opposite side of the Yangtze estuary from Shanghai. My classes are canceled and, the school canteen is off limits, and we are requested to stay in our apartment.


Beijing has been presented as on edge. There were the stories appearing in the world media telling of masses of people “fleeing Beijing.” I wondered about the characterization of people as fleeing Beijing. As a normal daily occurrence packed trains depart from Beijing. The train I took to Beijing in midweek was standing room only.


It is always easy to criticize in retrospect but often the media representations of the battle against SARS didn’t bear out in reality. Although spray disinfection of trains and planes is emphasized on TV, oddly passengers in the sleeper compartments of the train were refused new sheets and pillowcases of beds used by someone prior. This would seem an ordinary, inexpensive prophylactic measure for a disease that has taken on nosocomial dimensions. This was especially paradoxical since Chinese are being encouraged to pay more attention to normal hygiene such as washing hands.


There is a psychological reality concomitant with the SARS epidemic. In Beijing surgical masks are ubiquitous and becoming more so. The “Canadians in China” newsletter noted “the people are uneasy at the moment” and advised its readers “to avoid crowded places and situations.” Shop shelves are emptied and people are “edgy and frightened.” The SARS rumor mill cranks out many theories and/or conspiracies.


People must take SARS seriously but not let paranoia take over. There is a need to keep things in perspective. There are just over 3000 SARS cases reported at the time of this writing. In a population of 1.3 billion that represents approximately 0.0000023% of the Chinese population. It has been pointed out that people are likelier to contract many other deadly illnesses such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, or influenza. The high mortality rate of SARS though merits extra caution.


How and why did SARS originate in China? Elisabeth Rosenthal, in a New York Times article, noted the close proximity in which animals and humans live in South China. According to some scientists it is not inconceivable that under certain conditions animal viruses could jump to humans. In a report on China’s CCTV 4, doctors pointed out that there is still no known case of SARS in animals and that any transmission link from animals to humans has yet to be demonstrated. Ms. Rosenthal, however, did note that the incidence of SARS among farmers is low while that among food handlers is disproportionately high.


China was tardy in reporting its SARS cases. Now China is clamping down to rectify its earlier mistake -- a mistake that is taking a toll around the world. From a country that spawned the Hong Kong flu, Asian flu, other avian-transmitted flu, and now SARS, it would seem that, in addition to eradicating SARS, the goal is to prevent a next time. The fear is that the SARS coronavirus, never before seen in humans, is a product of genetic engineering. As mentioned, China has, no doubt, correctly identified improved hygiene as one important measure in disease prevention.


The ramifications of SARS extend beyond mere health concerns; SARS has disrupted the Chinese economic dynamo, the world’s second largest economy. Growth figures have been revised downwards to a 13-year low of 6%. Any downturn in the Chinese economy, with the US and Japanese economies already in the doldrums is sure to have negative reverberations outside China. China needs to undertake measures to protect the rapid economic gains of recent years that has resulted in much needed modernization. At stake is the health of the nation.


Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. He can be contacted at: kotto2001@hotmail.com



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