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SARS Causes Riots in Chinese Town - 2003-04-29

Riots broke out in a Chinese town because residents feared a local school would be turned into a quarantine center for people exposed to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The unrest comes as China introduces new tough rules to keep SARS from spreading.

Reports emerged on Tuesday that residents in Chagugang, a town of 32,000, ransacked a school building they though had been earmarked as a SARS quarantine center. Residents apparently took to the streets on Sunday in what is being called the first social unrest related to government measures to curb the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

China has more than 3,300 cases of SARS, with hundreds more suspected cases announced each day. At least 140 have died of the illness in China.

The disease first emerged in southern China in November last year, but for months, the national government said nothing about it. It was not until a few weeks ago, as international concern grew that SARS could grow into a global epidemic, that China moved to stem the spread.

State media on Tuesday announced 10 new "control measures" that pledge to offer better medical care but also strengthen control over cultural and entertainment events, and the movement of tourists, students and community organizations. The measures also impose new controls on the travel of millions of migrant workers who move from small towns to cities in search of jobs.

The government has already quarantined more than seven-thousand people in Beijing and sealed off three hospitals with SARS outbreaks. Authorities in Beijing also closed entertainment businesses such as theaters, in hope of halting the spread of SARS.

Bob Broadfoot is the managing director of Political Economic Risk Consultancy, a Hong Kong firm. He says that while the government acknowledged SARS months late, Beijing now is trying to build confidence that it is doing something to battle the outbreak. He says, however, that it is not clear how prepared China is to cope with the disease.

"When you're talking about China, there is such a credibility gap, in terms of just how serious the problem is," says Mr. Broadfoot. "Are the medical systems in secondary cities where many of the laborers from southern China went to during Chinese New Year, how are they set to cope with a problem like this?"

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread from southern China to Hong Kong and some 26 countries in March. More than five-thousand SARS cases have been reported worldwide, and 320 people have died of the disease. The illness causes a serious form of pneumonia.