Rumor of sealing Beijing false, officials say

Meanwhile, WHO warns travelers to avoid Toronto, in effort to contain SARS

April 24, 2003|By Anthony Kuhn and Tyler Marshall | Anthony Kuhn and Tyler Marshall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEIJING - In front-page reports in yesterday's newspapers, officials insisted that there was no truth to the rumor that the capital would be sealed to prevent the spread of the SARS virus.

Their reassurances failed to prevent a wave of panic-buying of food and basic goods, nor did they ease the worries of out-of-town students and migrant laborers who scrambled to get out of the city.

The World Health Organization, struggling to stop the spread of the virus, issued a warning urging travelers to avoid unnecessary visits to Beijing, Shanxi province and Toronto, adding them to a list that included Hong Kong and Guangdong province, where the outbreak is thought to have originated.

Toronto is the first city outside of Asia where WHO has advised against unnecessary travel.

Yesterday, Beijing also announced seven more deaths and 105 new SARS cases, bringing the city's statistics to 35 fatalities and 693 infected, and 782 suspected cases. Nationwide, the death toll stands at 106, with 2,100 infected.

Worldwide, SARS has claimed about 250 lives and infected an estimated 4,000 people.

The growing alarm among Beijing residents follows the government's abrupt lurch from a dearth of information on severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, to a glut. That change in policy shows a government struggling to respond to its fearful people in ways China has not thought necessary.

Tuesday night, citizens in Beijing began calling the mayor's hot-line asking about rumors that martial law was to be imposed, or that the city's eight central districts were to be sealed off.

Dismissing the rumors, officials declared that they were "fully confident of triumphing over this sudden disaster," official Beijing media reported.

Early today, a major hospital in Beijing was reported closed because of the outbreak, and its patients and more than 2,000 employees were under observation at other hospitals.

The People's Hospital of Peking University was being disinfected, according to an official of the university management office who declined to be identified. He said the closure was related to SARS.

The WHO's travel advisory on Toronto outraged Canadian officials who argued yesterday that the city is safe and the outbreak under control.

"I've never been so angry in all my life," Mayor Mel Lastman said, adding that he was "shocked" because "the medical evidence that we have before us does not support this."

Sixteen people in Toronto have died from the pneumonia-like disease, and 342 suspected or probable cases of SARS have been identified in the country, most of them in Ontario.

Within hours after the WHO notice, the British government issued a similar warning to its citizens and - perhaps the ultimate indignity - the health minister of Nova Scotia, Jane Purves, issued a similar advisory to residents of that Canadian province. Officials in Alberta are also reported to be considering a warning.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not issued such an advisory, however, suggesting only that travelers take precautions - such as not visiting hospitals - when traveling to Toronto.

Dr. David Heymann of WHO said the new warning was being given because "these areas now have quite a high magnitude of disease, a great risk of transmission locally and they have also been exporting cases to other countries."

But Colin D'Cunha, Ontario's commissioner of public health, accused WHO of "overreaction." At a news conference, he said that "Toronto continues to be a safe place ... There are 5 million people in greater Toronto and the risk continues to be low."

Toronto's medical officer, Dr. Sheela Basrur, said the outbreak is serious, but argued that it "is contained - largely in hospitals, which is, frankly, where it belongs."

Yesterday in Hong Kong, where there are indications that the incidence rate is leveling off, the government unveiled a $1.51 billion emergency relief package.

Presented by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa at a midday news conference, the proposals included a mix of tax relief, waivers of government license fees and loan guarantees for businesses in the hardest hit sectors of tourism, catering, entertainment and retail trading. Those who are put out of work would be offered training and temporary jobs.

Hong Kong's Financial Secretary Anthony Leung called the program part of "a delicate balancing act" to ease the impact on the local economy without endangering longer-term fiscal stability for Hong Kong - a region that even before the SARS crisis hit, had been struggling to control budget deficits.

The economic plan came as health authorities in the territory announced six new deaths and an additional 24 confirmed SARS cases.

Those figures - roughly in line with those of the past several days - suggested that the number of new cases in Hong Kong may be stabilizing. The new fatalities raised the SARS death toll for Hong Kong to 105.

The Hong Kong government also pledged $166 million for medical research and other longer-term measures to control the disease. The step followed an announcement by Tung a day earlier that he would seek new funding to train hospital staff.

Anthony Kuhn and Tyler Marshall are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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