China’s Fight Against SARS Spawns Backlash

Special to The Times

Opposition to official efforts to contain SARS turned violent in recent days when villagers in two Chinese provinces rioted and ransacked quarantine facilities, state media reported Monday.

Here in the capital, meanwhile, pet owners were fuming about the killing of animals suspected of carrying the virus.

When the central government was still suppressing information about severe acute respiratory syndrome and denying the existence of an epidemic, local officials silenced whistle-blowing media and, in some places, forbade citizens from wearing surgical masks.

But since late April, when the government reversed its policy and formally declared war on SARS, local governments have been under increasing pressure from higher authorities and citizens to avoid appearing soft on the disease.

Cabinet-mandated inspection teams are scouring local government records for unreported cases and firing officials for lax prevention efforts. Urban districts are competing for the lowest infection rates. And frightened citizens also want to see strong measures -- as long as SARS wards are not built in their backyards.


Under these circumstances, “it’s safer for local officials to be overzealous than to be seen as ineffective,” said Qinghua University historian Qin Hui.

But those efforts have provoked some backlash.

In coastal Zhejiang province, about 100 angry residents from two adjacent villages surrounded a state dormitory in the village of Xiandie on Saturday, according to the Metropolitan Express newspaper in Hangzhou, the provincial capital.

Local officials had converted the building into a medical observation facility to accommodate six travelers returning from Beijing, but the villagers demanded that the facility be scrapped, the report said.

“We just set up an observation facility to monitor whether the travelers had fevers or coughs,” one local official, who declined to give his name, said Monday.

“It wasn’t a quarantine ward, but the villagers didn’t understand,” the official said in a telephone interview. “They thought, ‘What if one of the travelers really became infected?’ ”

“At the instigation of a few drunks,” the report said, several dozen villagers “who did not know the true situation” charged into the building, smashing three offices and beating and injuring three officials who tried to stop them.

That incident followed one last week in which residents of Chagugang township, 45 miles southeast of Beijing, burned and smashed a schoolhouse they believed was being converted into a SARS quarantine facility.

In a similar case a week ago in central Henan province, police detained 13 people accused of vandalizing an epidemic control station in a village near the city of Linzhou, according to Henan’s official Dahe Bao newspaper. The station had been converted into a SARS quarantine ward. Authorities also fired the station’s chief and the head of the municipal health bureau, the report said, for handling the situation ineffectively.

“We don’t have any SARS cases here,” one irate village resident said by telephone Monday. “What gives them the right to put that SARS ward here? Why don’t they put it in the city?”

Since April 20, when China announced the firing of its health minister and Beijing’s mayor, numerous local officials have lost their jobs for mishandling the epidemic.

Health officials are particularly worried about the disease spreading from cities into rural areas, where medical facilities are inadequate to stem an epidemic. And despite sporadic protests, many citizens are in favor of tough measures against SARS.

Without any written instructions from the municipal government, the Beijing metropolitan area’s rural counties and districts have ordered villages to seal their gates and refuse entry to outsiders.

Over the weekend, for example, motorists entering the rural district of Pinggu were pulled over to fill out forms and have their temperatures taken. Public bus riders stood smoking and spitting, with thermometers protruding from their armpits, while white-suited men sprayed disinfectant on a line of vehicles.

At the entrance to one village, farmers sat by makeshift barricades next to hand-painted signs advising nonresidents to keep out. Some entrances to the village remained unguarded, however, and villagers bringing visitors in were not questioned. Despite official instructions, residents said, local authorities had done little to monitor villagers’ health.

In some districts of the capital, another confrontation has been brewing as state media and pet owners have reported police clubbing to death the dogs of confirmed and suspected SARS patients.

Following media reports suggesting that animals could transmit SARS to humans, some fearful residents abandoned their pets on the streets. Others have fled with their pets to areas with more lenient policies.

Pet owners were outraged by one Beijing newspaper’s report of a resident who threw his ailing dog from a sixth-story apartment window. As neighbors looked on, he then buried the wounded animal alive in the building’s communal lawn.

“I think that people are really delirious with panic,” Li Xiaoxi, a legislator in Beijing’s Haidian district told the online edition of the official People’s Daily.

“In China, pets as the legal property of citizens enjoy the protection of the law,” wrote lawyer Shirley Xu in a recent letter to officials and local media.

“I just want them to think about the problem carefully and consider whether this is really necessary or not,” Xu said.

Beijing continues to lead the world in SARS cases, with 1,897 confirmed cases, 1,510 suspected cases and 103 deaths. It added 98 new cases and three fatalities Monday. The disease has infected 4,280 people in mainland China and killed 206. Beijing authorities have quarantined nearly 16,000 people.


Guo Hui of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.