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.
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
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.
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
Into the Wind
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.
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.
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.
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.
us gossip types, this means the actual number should be around 500.
Just Can't Help It
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
About Us, Didja?
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.
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?