China quarantines thousands in Beijing to combat SARS

New measures contribute to a growing sense of alarm around capital

April 25, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING - China carried out a sweeping quarantine yesterday on thousands of Beijing residents who have had contact with suspected carriers of severe acute respiratory syndrome, as the Communist government began a resolute campaign to combat a national health crisis.

Isolation orders were imposed on homes, factories and schools where people who developed SARS symptoms lived, worked or studied.

Communist Party cells in work units and neighborhoods ferried food and other basic necessities to people confined to their homes, while monitoring them to ensure they did not flee.

Authorities wrapped white-and-yellow crime-scene tape around a city block in northwestern Beijing, sealing more than 2,000 health workers and patients inside the Beijing University People's Hospital complex.

Medical personnel there said more than 70 staff members were suspected of having the highly infectious respiratory illness.

"We're stuck here, and it feels very lonely," Shen Danhua, 42, deputy head of the pathology department, said by telephone.

Shen said she was isolated with the rest of the staff, though her department has no SARS patients. "It's a strong step but maybe they should have been this serious earlier," she said.

The new measures contributed to a growing sense of alarm around the capital, as residents stocked up on basic goods as if preparing for a prolonged siege.

Reported deaths and infections continued to rise sharply, and dense crowds of temporary laborers descended on major train stations seeking emergency passage out of the city.

Nationally, China reported 125 more cases of SARS yesterday, for a total of 2,422, the world's highest. There were four more deaths, bringing the total to 110.

But in Guangdong province, where SARS originated, the World Health Organization reported that the number of new cases had begun to slow.

Beijing continued to report the most new cases, at 89, down modestly from the 105 new cases reported the day before.

The capital now has a total of 774 confirmed SARS patients, with many hundreds of others suspected of having the disease. The figure is nearly 20 times higher than what Beijing was reporting five days ago, when the central government fired two top officials and vowed to begin to report accurately.

While SARS infections and even the broad quarantine orders on relatives or associates of suspected SARS patients probably do not affect more than about one-tenth of 1 percent of the people in this city of 14 million, the disease had ended any semblance of business as usual.

National and local news broadcasts were devoted almost entirely to SARS news and advice on how to prevent the disease.

Shop fronts were shuttered across the city. Most schools remained closed, restaurants and bars were empty and a cross-town taxi ride took 15 minutes instead of the usual 45 minutes.

Supermarkets reported brisk sales of rice and cooking oil, fueled by rumors repeatedly denied by authorities that the entire city would be closed to incoming and outgoing traffic.

The rumors raged a day after the World Health Organization advised people against traveling to Beijing and Shanxi province, as well as Toronto, because of relatively high SARS infection rates in those places.

Students and migrant workers making quick exits from Beijing filled the cavernous square in front of Beijing's main train station last night, lingering in the open air to minimize contact with any coughs and sneezes in the waiting hall.

"This virus is invisible and untouchable, which makes it really scary," said Shi Chuanquan, 39, who gave up a job in a cement factory and was arranging to return to his home province of Anhui. "If the government can't figure out how to handle this, how are we are peasants going to protect ourselves?"

In Beijing, the central government announced that Wu Yi, dubbed the Iron Lady for her negotiating style while trade minister in the 1990s, had taken over leadership of the country's fight against SARS.

Some observers expect that Wu, a vice premier, will be named health minister as well, replacing Zhang Wenkang, who was fired in a shake-up over the weekend.

The New China News Agency said the new quarantine directive would apply to hospitals, factories, construction sites, hotels, restaurants, offices, residential buildings, schools and whole villages where the virus has been found.

The order is compulsory, the official news agency said, and anyone violating it will be "severely punished."

A dozen police cars surrounded a neighborhood on a tree-lined street just east of Beijing Central University of Finance and Economics, enforcing strict controls on who could enter and exit.

A sign posted on a neighborhood wall described the reasons with rare candor: "The immediate surroundings have seen more than 10 SARS infections and have been identified as one of the city's high-risk areas."

Other cities have begun following Beijing's lead in an effort to prevent a broad SARS outbreak. In the eastern city of Hangzhou, which has reported only a few suspected SARS cases, travelers returning from Beijing, Guangzhou or other cities with more SARS patients were detained in hotels for up to two weeks, thought to be the longest incubation period for SARS.

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