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China's Handling of New SARS Case Under Close Scrutiny - 2004-01-05


China's first confirmed case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in several months is focusing attention on the government's handling of a potential health crisis.

During the first SARS outbreak last year, China's government came under widespread international criticism, after officials first denied there was a problem and later tried to cover it up.

Many people, in China and abroad, blamed the government's inadequate initial response for the disease's quick and devastating spread. The contagious respiratory disease started in southern China in late 2002, and spread to more than eight-thousand people worldwide.

More than 700 died, most of them in China, before the outbreak faded mid-year.

The outbreak reached its peak last spring, as President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took office. Their administration won praise, after they took bold steps to restore public confidence, including dismissing the health minister. The government has promised to be more forthcoming and quickly report any new cases of SARS.

Public confidence in that promise has been put to the test, with news that a man in Guangdong Province has SARS. On one of Beijing's busy shopping streets, a 30-year-old office worker, who declined to give his name, said he hopes the government has learned a few lessons.

"In China, we have a proverb, 'you learn and you grow.' SARS will not be big this time from what I see, so far, based on this one case," he said. "The government has done a great job in managing SARS. So, I am not afraid anymore."

Politics Professor Joseph Cheng at the City University of Hong Kong says it is natural that Beijing would want to handle news of a possible outbreak very carefully.

"The spread of the news will [potentially] damage the economy, will damage tourism, rather badly," he said. "So the authorities are in a kind of difficult situation, on the one hand to maintain transparency and on the other to minimize the adverse impact on the economy."

Early last year, international travelers were warned to avoid areas with SARS outbreaks, and residents of those areas were afraid to shop, dine out or attend public events.

Observers say they expect the government to embark on a campaign over the next few days to show people that it is prepared for a new outbreak, and that its actions to contain the disease have been quick and decisive.

Analysts say one example of this approach was an order to round up and kill about 10,000 civets, after tests showed the small mammals commonly found in southern China's food markets were linked to the disease.