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Last Updated

07 May 2003

Source: Newsday, May 7, 2003

Reassurances Given in Beijing

SARS cases drop, as city gets calmer


Beijing - Municipal authorities made a public effort yesterday to assure both local citizens and foreign investors that aggressive steps are being taken to control the SARS outbreak.

Even as they spoke, the number of new cases reported was the lowest in two weeks - 70 - and people venturing into the outdoors began to doff the masks that have been omnipresent for weeks. About 100 new cases have been reported in the city daily for the past two weeks.

In a news conference that lasted nearly two hours, political leaders listed the numbers of people in quarantine and detailed how many X-ray machines and other medical equipment have been purchased. And they described details of Communist Party efforts to smoke out cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, building by building, in the city's hardest hit neighborhood, Haidian.

Local manufacturers, most foreign-owned, were repeatedly praised for not abandoning China. And assurances were given that all 66 large-scale construction projects under way in the city will go forward, with workers quarantined inside the sites "for their protection from SARS," said Cai Fuchao, who has the title of chief propagandist.

But government officials avoided declaring a reversal of the epidemic. Because the nation has been on holiday for five days, officials are wary that the time most residents spent indoors may be the factor responsible for slowing transmission. Media reports in Beijing quoted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as saying that while progress had been made, the outbreak here "still remains grave." In Brussels, the head of the World Health Organization said the epidemic in China still has not peaked. "There is obviously an increase in the outbreak going on," director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland said.

On the streets of Beijing, people expressed a measure of relief by removing their masks and enjoying the weather. In the historic Houhai neighborhood, hundreds of elderly people, huddled in tight clusters, played mah-jongg, dominoes or cards. Few wore masks. "People are becoming more understanding about SARS, so the fear is less," said a 25-year-old woman, who asked to be called Jane, resting beside Houhai Lake.

Such a relaxation was supported by Columbia University biologist Ian Lipkin, who while visiting Beijing spoke to China's TV audience. "If you're outside in fresh air in a park, you really don't need to wear a mask," he said.

The relative calm appears in part due to the slowdown in rumors, which has coincided with increased government openness about the epidemic. At Houhai's open air Bridge Bar, Bi Xiao, 22, explained that most young Beijing residents can't stand to stay cooped up with their families any longer. Young adults appear to constitute the bulk of Beijing's SARS cases, according to Cai. The number of confirmed cases in the city reached 1,960 yesterday; four more deaths were reported, for a toll of 107. Nationwide, 138 new cases and eight deaths were reported, for a cumulative total of 4,409 cases and 214 deaths.