China fires health minister, Beijing mayor, cancels holiday
Monday, April 21, 2003
BEIJING -- Jolted by a jump in SARS deaths and a tenfold increase in infections in Beijing alone, China's Communist Party stripped the health minister and the capital's mayor of power Sunday. It also canceled an annual weeklong holiday for tens of millions of people to keep them from traveling and curb the spread of the disease.
Just hours after announcing 12 new deaths nationwide, the official Xinhua News Agency said Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong were removed from their Communist Party posts but kept their government titles. The reported number of infections in Beijing increased from 37 to 346.
The party is the true power in China, and Zhang's and Meng's party posts were far more important than their government offices. Their loss left the two men greatly diminished as political figures and possibly foreshadows their demotion or outright ouster from government.
The dismissals came two days after President Hu Jintao threatened serious punishment for officials who didn't quickly and accurately report cases of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Last week, Chinese leaders had declared fighting SARS a national priority after weeks of criticism that the communist government reacted too slowly to the mysterious, deadly outbreak. The illness is believed to have originated in China.
Gao Qiang, an executive vice health minister, said the decision to cancel the May Day holiday beginning May 1 was made "to prevent the massive movement of people and the possible spread of the disease."
He acknowledged that the move "will mean massive losses in tourism revenue, but people's lives and health had to be put above everything."
May Day, the international holiday celebrating the workers of the world, has become a major way for China to boost its travel industry and pump cash into the economy.
In China, May Day, the Spring Festival and October's one-week National Day vacation set in motion one of largest mass movements of humanity on the planet.
The new fatalities raised China's death toll to 79 and its total number of reported cases to 1,814, Gao told a news conference. The most dramatic jump was in Beijing.
In a rare admission, Gao said his ministry was not properly prepared for the outbreak and didn't give "clear instructions or effective guidance."
But he denied that SARS cases were intentionally hidden from investigators, warning that "any such act will be severely punished."
The first known SARS case occurred in southern China's Guangdong province last November. But no cases were disclosed until February. As SARS began to spread around the world, China faced allegations that it wasn't sharing all of its statistics.
So far, officials have not detected the spread of SARS in large rural areas, Gao said. He noted that farmers have lower incomes and less access to medical care. If the outbreak hit the countryside, he said, "the consequences would be grim."
Across Asia, governments weighed tougher measures in their struggle to stop the outbreak that has killed at least 205 people worldwide and infected more than 3,800 -- most of them in Asia.
Singapore ordered all 2,400 workers at its largest wholesale vegetable market quarantined and shut the market for 10 days after several SARS cases were reported there.
Dozens of police in face masks barricaded the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Center to keep people out. The closure will cause a "significant disruption" of vegetable supplies in the city-state, the government said.
After reporting a record 12 deaths in a single day Saturday, Hong Kong reported seven more Sunday as officials began re-evaluating the drug treatment being used in the modern metropolis -- one of the world's hardest-hit places with 88 deaths.
Although there is no evidence the virus can be transmitted through blood, South Korea was considering banning blood donations by people recently returned from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam.
Indonesia deployed troops to help nurses and doctors examine Indonesian workers returning from SARS-hit countries.
Several governments have urged their citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to China.