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Monday, April 21, 2003 8:56:18 PM

Re: Zeev Hed post# 99739

Post# of 704017
This SARS thing won't go away quietly.........

China says it was lax on SARS

10 times more cases in Beijing, 2 officials fired

Beijing -- In a rare admission Sunday of serious mistakes, the Chinese government stripped the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing of power for their mishandling of the SARS crisis, canceled a national weeklong holiday, and reported almost 10 times more cases in Beijing, with hundreds more likely to come.

After weeks of claims to the contrary, health officials acknowledged a full- fledged outbreak in the capital, with 346 confirmed cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and 18 deaths, with 402 more suspected cases under evaluation.

Those figures rank Beijing as the city with the third-largest number of SARS cases in the world, after Hong Kong and Guangzhou in southern China.

China now acknowledges 79 deaths and 1,814 confirmed cases overall, almost half the worldwide total, and those figures are expected to rise in the coming weeks as cities and provinces are pressured to provide accurate information.

The Health Ministry was "not well-prepared" for the outbreak and "didn't give clear instructions or effective guidance," Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang said in unusually candid admissions at a nationally televised news conference. "The Chinese government answers to the broad masses of the people, and we will try all means to reverse and improve upon the weaknesses and faulty aspects of our work."

Shortly after Gao's remarks, the official New China News Agency announced that Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, who days ago had declared SARS "under control" in China, and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong, whose government failed to give a candid accounting of SARS, were removed from their Communist Party posts but kept their government titles.

The cancellation of the weeklong May Day holiday, also announced by Gao on Sunday, indicated how seriously the government is now taking SARS, which has a mortality rate of about 4 percent.

Tens of millions of Chinese normally travel during the holiday, packing trains and airplanes as families go on vacation and migrant workers and students return home.

The announcements mark the apparent culmination of a slow awakening by senior officials to the threats the SARS outbreak poses for public health, the economy and the government's reputation abroad.

The government's mishandling of SARS has become its worst international embarrassment since the crackdown of democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Foreign health experts have assailed China for responding too slowly to the outbreak and misleading the public about its spread.

State-run national television did not report on SARS until this month, three months after officials in southern China's Guandong province realized that they were facing a dangerous new infectious disease.

Zhang then talked about symptoms of the disease and prevention techniques but understated its impact in China.

Until last week, reports in the state-run media had often focused on reassuring people that SARS was not a serious problem -- an indication to many Chinese that it in fact must be the opposite.

Last week, the media prominently reported directives from President Hu Jintao and the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, on better handling and on the reporting of SARS cases.

"I think maybe before the last week, their first priority was to make up something to improve their public relations image," said Wu Guoguang, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who was ejected from the Communist Party for criticizing the violent 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing. "Now they have to deal with the real crisis, not only the PR crisis."

On the streets of the capital, people said they were surprised by the shakeup.

"This is great!" said Li Chen, 33, a designer who said his uncle, a doctor, has the virus. "I never thought those bastards would go. I hope more of them step down because of this."

Asked, however, if the government's action would help restore the public's trust, which has been eroded by the government's handling of the disease, Li shook his head. "They are only going to be as open as they have to," he said. "You can't teach old dogs new tricks."

Critics assert that if China had more aggressively battled SARS in southern Guangdong province in late January and early February, the disease would not have spread as quickly to Hong Kong, the rest of China and around the globe.

And the government's reputation abroad on SARS suffered in recent days with published reports that two Beijing hospitals, at the direction of the city government, put SARS patients in hotel rooms and took others for rides in ambulances around the city to conceal the true numbers from visiting World Health Organization doctors.

Gao said Sunday that it was difficult to come up with an accurate count of cases for Beijing because patients were at more than 70 hospitals under several different authorities, but the public didn't wait for the official figures before taking action.

Tourism and business trips to Beijing are sharply down. In the university district in northwest Beijing, some students have bought train tickets to go home to escape the illness, while others have confined themselves to their dorm rooms.

What may have troubled the central government most was the economic impact of SARS. China's social stability depends in large part on a fast-growing economy that continues creating jobs for laid-off state employees and migrant workers.



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