May 23, 2003

Lessons of SARS

There is a palpable grumpiness surrounding businessmen and foreigners here in Chengdu. Business is bad, there is no work for expats, travel is restricted and worst of all: the netbars have closed.

For the common Sichuanese, the loss of Internet access, the roadblocks to scenic sites and the marked decrease in traffic business or otherwise is not much of an inconvenience.

Old men and women continue to skip off to the market to haggle over breakfast, lunch and dinner. The underemployed and the retired still sit around with tea, tobacco and chat to the clackety-clack of mah jiong sessions.

Students are preparing for the grueling tests of Black July and peasants/workers still trudge from one construction spot to another smoking and muttering.

But the big money makers that cruise around Chengdu in $100,000 BMWs and Explorers are shaking their heads in misery. Imports from Canton are a trickle. Delegations both in and out of China are laced with procedures, thermometers and the ever-present specter of quarantine.

Summer plans to visit Finland, Hawaii, Australia, Thailand etc. are being put off or rethought. Hotels and restaurants are at 20% normal capacity and the floor managers are hearing it from the bosses and the bosses from the investors. Boeing's planes are grounded at the Chengdu International airport and International Paper is finding itself with fewer orders for corrugated boxes: exports are down, and so is the demand for the packages that ship them.

Conversations amongst the rich and wealthy revolve around slow business and mutual reassurances that SARS will not affect the raging Chinese economy, the hardening renmenbi or the steady inflow of direct investment from other rich and wealthy people.

So far, 5200 SARS cases have been reported on the mainland and 296 people have died, including one of Hong Kong's leading SARS doctors, Tse Yuen Man. Approximately 600 have died worldwide. Not an extremely deadly virus when considering the population density of Eastern China and the time it took for the Chinese government to cone clean and let the world (and its own people) know that an unknown virus with no cure is killing people. Other viruses with less exposure are just as deadly if not more so.

China is receiving a lot of flak mostly due to a culture of secrecy – or lying – which foreign businessmen find especially costly and infuriating. So to vent their anger, the rich are looking for ways to profit:

Charles Liu of Ping An Insurance held forth about the vast market open to his company and the revolutionary effect the onset of SARS had on the perception of normal Chinese toward insurance.

Some hospitals in China were mumbling about sums reaching 200,000 RMB to treat a SARS patient. For the unfortunates of Shanxi, mostly rural or urban poor with little in the way of health care, SARS means death if these prices hold. So Charles sees the need for people like him to step in and aid the little man in his crisis.

Foreign insurance companies, already spreading out in all of the Special Economic Zones dotting Eastern China, are chomping at the bit. Just 1% of 1.3 billion worried Chinese means big money.

Hospitals here regardless of Eastern Seaboard or Backward Hinterland were mostly built by Russians in the 1950s and look more like prisons. Dirty, cold concrete and moldy blankets; smoking doctors and an audience for every procedure; ridiculous crowds and stressed out nurses and most ridiculous of all: Chinese hospitals in Sichuan adhere strictly to THE RULE and eat and rest at the appointed times (8am, noon, 5pm). After 5:30 the hospitals close. That's right, don't let anyone tell you different. Emergency rooms stay open for emergencies every other sick person must wait until tomorrow. And your not allowed to be sick during lunch.

Imagine who is drooling over revelations that Taiwanese hospitals are ill fitted to meet the challenge of SARS.

Last night a representative of Friends of China gave a speech at the American Chamber of Commerce monthly dinner. He described the conditions of the outlying counties and the medical facilities they didn't have. The attending businessmen oohed and ahhed and shook their heads at the dismal situation and wondered aloud how such counties would deal with an onslaught of SARS.

They wear masks and shun all outsiders, that is what they do.

–Sascha Matuszak

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Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column (usually) appears Fridays.

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