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Chinese turn to sorcerers, prophecy, potions to fight SARS

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

BEIJING -- Hiring sorcerers. Lighting firecrackers. Following advice reputed to be from a mystical talking baby. While China's government promotes science, thousands of its people are turning to the supernatural to fight SARS.

The resort to tradition has prompted efforts by China's state press and the officially atheist communist government to discourage it.

But multiple reports of what Chinese leaders consider dangerous superstition in widely scattered areas illustrate the scale of fear of a disease the Health Ministry said Tuesday has killed at least 262 people on China's mainland. More than 5,000 others are infected.

In the central province of Hunan, villagers hoping to avoid severe acute respiratory syndrome seek help from sorcerers in incense-infused rites, according to local officials and newspapers. Scores of believers gather at temples or the sorcerer's home, kneeling in prayer before lighted incense and candles. Some burn fake money as an offering to the gods.

He Dazhi, a reporter for the newspaper Sanxiang Metropolitan News, wrote that believers are asked to bow to spiritual scrolls or a statue of Buddha. Gongs or drums occasionally accompany the ceremony.

"SARS is completely unknown to many farmers," He wrote. "Their fear of infection has been used by sorcerers to have them rely on superstition instead of science."

On Tuesday, World Health Organization investigators who visited northern Hebei province said migrant workers had carried the virus to rural areas from neighboring Beijing.

Could spread to rural areas

The announcement confirmed worries that SARS, still largely an urban disease in China, might spread to the countryside. Experts say a lack of doctors and hospitals there could make any outbreak a catastrophe.

Gao Binzhong, a professor of folklore study at Peking University, said the popularity of magic in response to SARS in China's vast countryside, and some cities, is natural.

"People not only need a medical explanation, but also a cultural and psychological explanation," Gao said. "It is understandable that people with various backgrounds explain the uncertainty in their own way."

China's communist leaders have tried since taking power in 1949 to stamp out belief in the occult, which they say damages social stability and national unity.

But belief in spiritualism has endured in rural areas, and fear of SARS has even city dwellers reviving traditions.

Farmers and urban residents in the provinces of Anhui in the east, Guangdong in the south and Fujian in the southeast are lighting firecrackers, long used to chase away evil spirits, according to police.

They also are consuming a sugary elixir of boiled mung beans meant to keep the virus away.

The ideas stemmed from a rumor about a baby who purportedly spoke immediately after birth and said firecrackers and "green bean soup" could prevent infection, said an official at Anhui Provincial Public Security Bureau, who would give only his surname, He.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the province, including the capital, Hefei, received the rumor via text messages on their cell phones, the official said.

Different variations of the story, told in areas as far-flung as Guangdong and the northern region of Inner Mongolia, say the baby said the soup had to be consumed by midnight on May 7 and that he died after delivering the message, according to newspapers.

The rumor caused sales of mung beans and firecrackers to skyrocket in Guangdong, Fujian and Guizhou.

In Guizhou, firecrackers crackled throughout the city of Liupanshui after a rumor spread that a deaf man spoke after years of silence and said the virus would disappear if fireworks were set off May 6, the start of summer on the Chinese lunar calendar, according to a policeman who would give only his surname, Tang.

Similar displays were reported in other cities.

"People believe gunpowder could kill the disease virus and disinfect the air," said an official of the Guizhou provincial police who refused to give his name. "The public is still worried, although Guizhou has no cases of SARS at this moment."


Key devlopments concerning SARS

China: Encouraged by falling infection rates, officials eased some SARS quarantine orders in Beijing, reducing the number of people in isolation to about 10,000 -- down from a peak of 16,000 last week.

Hong Kong: Residents mourned the death of Hong Kong's first doctor from SARS. Dr. Tse Yuen-man died at Tuen Mun Hospital, where she contracted SARS while treating patients with a nurse who also died last week.

Germany: A laboratory study suggested that an experimental drug targeted at the common cold could be modified to take on SARS. In the study, appearing this week in the journal Science, German virus researchers say they have tentatively determined the structure of a key protein used by the SARS virus to infect cells and believe the virus would be vulnerable to treatment by a modified version of an experimental common cold drug called AG7088.

Nigeria: Nigeria was screening visitors for signs of the disease after a Taiwanese businessman died of suspected SARS. Health officials in the west African nation believed the man -- who died Feb. 28 -- had been in contact with about 30 Nigerians in Kano and Lagos.

Singapore: Proving that no visitor is immune from SARS screening, authorities in Singapore had German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder fill out a health declaration form and checked him out with thermal imaging camera after he touched down at Changi airport.

Middle East: The Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain added the Philippines to its banned visitor list that includes China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. People from those six countries must wait at least 10 days in another country before they can enter Bahrain.

Taiwan: World Health Organization officials warned that the outbreak in Taiwan, site of the third-largest outbreak after China and Hong Kong, was worsening, possibly due to mistakes at its hospitals. Taiwan announced 21 new infections Tuesday, bringing its total to 228, and reported three new deaths, raising the island's SARS death toll to 30.

Worldwide toll: SARS has killed at least 580 people worldwide, out of more than 7,400 infected. Mainland China has reported 262 deaths, Hong Kong 225, Singapore 28, Taiwan, 30, Canada 24, Vietnam five, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand two each.


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