WHO Lifts Travel Advisory for Beijing
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 25, 2003; 10:33 AM
BEIJING, June 24 -- The World Health Organization lifted its warning against travel to Beijing today in a major victory against SARS, a disease that is believed to have erupted in China and spread across the world in part because of a Chinese government cover-up.
On a postcard-perfect summer day, residents of the Communist Chinese capital celebrated in typically capitalist fashion -- flocking to stores holding massive sales. The Communist government, meanwhile, filled the nightly state-run news with self-congratulatory paeans to the Communist Party without which, the news reports said, defeating SARS would have been all but impossible.
"WHO has decided that the travel advisory against Beijing is lifted with immediate effect," said Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific. "WHO concluded that the risk to travelers to Beijing is now minimum."
The WHO's announcement marked "a milestone in the fight against SARS, not only in China but in the world," said Omi at a news conference in Beijing.
Beijing was the last area subject to a WHO travel warning because of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed more than 800. In China, 5,326 people contracted SARS and 347 died most of them in Beijing. In the past weeks, the WHO has lifted its travel advisory to four Chinese provinces, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Just a few weeks ago, panic filled the streets of this Asian capital, an estimated 1 to 2 million people fled the city and stores, restaurants and hotels had shut down all over town. Beijing's ubiquitous traffic jams disappeared. And in the countryside surrounding the capital, villagers had built road blocks to bar entry to anyone from the city. Economists issued dire predictions about a downturn in China's economy.
But since late May, things have begun to return slowly to normal. Traffic pileups are again a daily occurrence. And in the corridors of business, deals are being signed again at a furious pace. Trade figures show that SARS has not hurt China's economy as much as expected. In May, for example, the country posted by far its largest single trade surplus of the year so far -- $2.23 billion with exports rising 37.3 percent and imports climbing 40.9 percent. Economists said the effects have generally been limited to airlines, hotels and restaurants. On the other hand, the medical insurance business is booming and e-trade on the Internet has gotten a boost.
The WHO announcement came after the number of cases in Beijing's hospitals dwindled to 46, below the WHO standard of fewer than 60 that is required to withdraw the advisory. While some medical experts have questioned Beijing's sudden success at controlling the disease, Omi also said the WHO was satisfied that Beijing was preventing the disease from spreading to areas outside the city and the municipal government had established effective measures to trace the source of infection. "The chain of human-to-human transmission in Beijing has been broken," Omi said. "In spite of this excellent achievement we have to remain vigilant. There is no room for complacency."
China's state-run media seized on the announcement as a sign of the superiority of the Communist system.
"This victory in the struggle against SARS stems from the strong and correct leadership of the party center and the State Council," said Beijing's acting Mayor Wang Qishan in a statement after the WHO news conference. "It comes from the strong support of [the] People's Liberation Army, the armed forces and the central ministries."
However, Wang's appointment as mayor came only after the Chinese government was forced to sack two senior Chinese officials, former Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong and former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, on April 20. The pair were cashiered after the government acknowledged it had covered up the extent of the SARS crisis.
SARS erupted in Guangdong province in November and is believed to be somehow linked to a virus found in several wild animals, such as the civet cat, that are favored by the omnivorous Cantonese. Chinese authorities there learned of the disease at the latest by December but did little to deal with the outbreak because of concerns that it would affect the economy.
From Guangdong it spread across China and to Hong Kong and the rest of the world. The disease came to Beijing at the latest in early March. For months, Communist authorities, first in Guangdong and then in Beijing, banned China's state-run media from reporting about the disease, how to prevent it from spreading and its seriousness.
But following the efforts of a whistle-blowing doctor named Jiang Jianyong, who accused the government of lying about its figures, China's leaders were forced to acknowledge SARS' spread. Vice Premier Wu Yi, one of the country's most competent officials, was placed in charge of the SARS effort and her team quickly moved to control the illness.
The SARS crisis has "definitely changed the way I think," said Zhang Yunyan, 30, an executive at the Zhongyou Shopping Center in western Beijing. "Before we used to go to bars, go singing Karaoke, eat out. Now, I wake up and go mountain climbing, get off work and go running."
Zhang said sales at the shopping center had exploded starting two weeks ago. The store is optimistic, she said, that it will make up this month for the revenue loss in May.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand," she said. Inside, the store bustled with college-age women trying on skirts and young men in T-shirts ogling the newest arrivals from Nike.
One item selling particularly well, Zhang said, is tents. "Everybody wants to go into the mountains and sleep outside," she said. "SARS has made us all want to get back to nature."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company