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Beijing's SARS dilemma: Cover-up or instability?

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[Beijing, April 3, 2003] After much silence and censorship, Beijing finally made public the explosive SARS virus in China; but it did so with cautious disclosure in an obvious attempt to downplay the fact that this virus has become widespread in China.

Many hospitals in Beijing are now housing patients with the SARS virus, including the prestigious PLO General Hospital (also called the 301 Hospital). The authorities have issued decrees, warning governmental employees to pay attention to personal hygiene. It is now a common scene in Beijing to see residents wearing masks on the streets. Sources in Beijing claim that SARS actually came from the northwestern region at first, not from Guangdong Province as reported by the press.

Because of the rapid spread of this virus, the tourism industry has been hit hard. Some people are afraid of visiting Beijing because of such news. Some well-informed sources report that many hospital beds have become filled with SARS patients in Beijing. However, the specific number is not allowed to be released to the public, as it is considered a “classified state secret.”

Health institutions and governmental organizations have reportedly held emergency secret meetings, in an attempt to control the spread of this virus. Medical staff are now required to wear masks at work and individuals are not encouraged to visit public sites. Some Beijing residents complain that they have only been advised to wear masks and wash their hands frequently, but they have never been told any other preventive measures.

World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested to the public to postpone their trips to China, and sent four experts to Beijing and Guangzhou to conduct on-site investigations. It is apparent that Beijing initially hoped to cope with SARS alone and eliminate this virus on its own. Faced with enormous unemployment and workers’ unrest, the last thing Beijing wants is the fear of an epidemic virus such as SARS. But this effort has failed. The consequence of Beijing’s cover-up, however, can prove to be disastrous both to the progress of its economic reform as well as to its ailing political dictatorship based on Communist ideology. Now foreign investors are uncertain about the serious impact of SARS on their investment and joint ventures. Due to this virus, world economic conferences, among other international events to be held in China, will be indefinitely postponed. Had Beijing taken a proactive approach earlier to work with WHO and other countries to find ways to control this SARS earlier on, this crisis could have very well been under control. In addition, the populace in China and abroad has furthered their distrust for Beijing’s lyric and propaganda.

The global surge of SARS has affected the global economy with regard to aviation, finance, and trade. This is particularly true in China, where processing and manufacturing industries are becoming the foremost base for the entire world.

Privately, many residents in Beijing claim that one must double or triple the number of SARS cases that Beijing has publicly admitted to get a truer estimate of victims. It remains to be seen what this SARS crisis will mean in terms of China’s political and social stability.

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