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April 18, 2003

Rumors and Leavetakings

by Sascha Matuszak

It all started when the Peace Corps quietly slipped out of China two weeks ago. There was a small, muted gathering at the local watering hole in Chengdu, and then they were gone, SARS being the culprit.

Chengdu is a focal point for the Peace Corps in southwest China, they taught in the schools, ate and drank in the spots around town and have been a steady presence since the so-called Sino-US "political Peace Corps" began. Their swift and sudden departure robbed the area of 90 English teachers, throwing schools into an uproar of sorts as they scrambled to meet the needs of their students and save what money they had invested in classes, apartments and the like.

After the Peace Corps left, the floodgates were opened: students at the Sichuan Minorities College have had their classes cut short and they are preparing to leave. The Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine canceled classes and the students are milling about town deciding whether to leave, travel or stick around and fill one of the positions left by the Peace Corps kids. Various other faces started disappearing: some to Thailand or Tibet. And new faces from HK and Guangdong started coming to take their place.

The Sheraton Hotel had tour groups cancel reservations, leaving at least 20% of the rooms vacant. The manager of the Holiday Inn is fielding emails from his higher-ups, exhorting him to fill the gaps left by faltering hotels in the east. But with 13 reported SARS cases in the city and 4 deaths, Chengdu's hotels are also feeling the pinch.

Yapping Into the Wind

And these are the facts on the ground that are causing locals to hurl astronomical numbers at each other and nod sagely. There could be 100 cases in Chengdu, or none, nobody knows and nobody believes what they hear from the government, media or what they hear on the street. Travelers from the east coast are arriving in trickles in what they assume to be the safest place on earth. One hour sitting and jaw-jacking with the locals will drain away all blood from their now unsmiling faces.

But nobody really believes they're going to die until a member of the community does, so jokes are the trophies of the day. People giggle and yelp out "feidian!" (SARS) at any sneeze or cough within 10 meters. The sneezer giggles. The person sneezed upon guffaws. Everybody trades smokes and shakes their heads over poor HK and the scrambling Chinese doctors and bureaucrats.

And of course over the loss in business: The hotels are suffering, the tour guides are suffering. The bars and pubs are not suffering, as drinking and yapping go snout to bottle top.

News that the virus can mutate has given us all the opportunity to sing "Ring around the Rosie" to each other. And then WHO recently adjusted Beijing's SARS cases from the government's measly 40 to more than 250.

For us gossip types, this means the actual number should be around 500.

They Just Can't Help It

In China, if an old woman sells tomatoes at 50 cents/lb, they're actually 10 cents. If the Chinese government says they have 13 cases in Chengdu and 40 in Beijing, double the numbers and pray.

The government threw $1.2 million into a joint Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Health project to set up an emergency disease prevention center in Beijing. Too little too late perhaps, but you have to take into account that China has a lot on its plate, what with the economy charging along as it is, the peasants clamoring for more of the pie and a new leadership just settling itself in for the long haul.

Nonetheless, for those who have lived in China for a longer period of time, the secrecy and reluctance to "scare the populace" came as no surprise. Some may judge the government's decision to be a wise one, given the chaos that 1.3 billion frightened people can create. But the slow action and flimsy attempts to cover up the numbers of infected patients, the number of deaths and the ability or inability of the country's hospitals to handle the disease has only led to more deaths that need covering up and a rumor mill plowing ahead at full speed churning out numbers that were pulled out of thin air.

Of course, no government wants to have an uncontrollable epidemic on their hands, skipping from stewardess to businessman to driver to old woman selling vegetables – Britain sputtered and whined till the very end when the world accused them of selling tainted beef. Rest assured the US would spread a cloak of nonsense and gibberish over any such "sickness" – just see how soldiers are treated if they complain about their children being born without an important limb or two.

And China, being the "new kid on the block" (isn't that a good one) in the globalized age, can expect every high and mighty democracy out there to jump all over the Chinese decision to be indecisive about what SARS really was and what it is doing to the populace. No matter how forthright and earnest the media has become – CCTV covers SARS almost as much as Iraq – everyone will remember those first few weeks.

Forgot About Us, Didja?

What is most worrisome is the media and government's focus on the east coast and the capital. People go back and forth from Hong Kong to the Interior all the time. Expats going to buy a visa, businessmen making big deals or visiting mistresses, politicians meeting other politicians, travelers coming up from Guangxi and looking for a bit of the big city life.

Not to mention all of the above that are now coming to the western and central provinces to escape the SARS outbreak out there. Where are they (we!) going to go from here?

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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