Failures of regime's approach evident as fears of epidemic's spread grip city

CHINA: Fear of SARS is gripping Beijing and may yet force great change on an elite incapable of telling the truth, writes Jasper…

CHINA: Fear of SARS is gripping Beijing and may yet force great change on an elite incapable of telling the truth, writes Jasper Becker

A Journal of the Plague Year, Death in Venice, Love in a Time of Cholera, and, coming soon, Beijing and the Deadly SARS.

"Life here will never be the same again," my doctor told me, his voice muffled by two large surgical masks as I nervously sought his diagnosis for a case of sinusitis.

As he checked me for temperature and dry cough, the doctor confided his belief that there will be no reliable method of diagnosing the acute respiratory disease for at least six months; and a cure or a vaccine could be years away.

"This means people are going to have change their behaviour instead; no one is going to public places any more," he predicted. So far, I was not infected but otherwise I would have been packed off to an isolation ward in one of the city's hard-pressed hospitals where several dozen have already died from the mysterious flu-like epidemic.

Beijing is trying hard to look modern, with its stylish skyscrapers, mobile phones and trendy restaurants, but it feels like a plague-stricken medieval burgh.

There are no crosses on the wall yet but its citizens huddle nervously whispering stories about the latest mortalities and listening intensely to pseudo-scientific "facts" about an epidemic that no one yet understands.

People are wearing surgical masks and disinfecting their offices just as, in Daniel Defoe's day, Londoners passionately believed that only eating nutmegs imported at vast expense from four islands in the Dutch East Indies could keep you safe.

In fact, no one yet knows how the disease spreads and the most alarming thing is that the greatest number of cases are among the medical staff who are best placed to take the right precautions.

On the school run this morning, nervous parents heard that a whole family in River Gardens, one of the foreign enclaves of villages outside the city, had come down and was now in isolation.

"It could be just a rumour," cautioned one parent.

"Or the authorities could be keeping it secret, they are more worried about foreign investment than anything else," warned a third grimly .

The alleged victim's son goes to another foreign-funded school but they live in the same compound as my son's school, where the headmistress says she is alarmed by the parents planning to go abroad for the forthcoming May 1st holiday, which now lasts a week.

The government is still encouraging people to travel and spend and live up to its growth targets, although this will ensure the disease will spread throughout China.

It seems only a matter of time before my son's school will follow the example of the French school and close indefinitely.

Over lunch at one Western embassy, the ambassador says that for weeks he has been devoting all his time to the problem and is still wondering if he has the right contingency plans.

"I heard all the hospitals are already full in Beijing with patients. We know the Chinese government is not telling the truth about this but that only takes you so far," he says.

In his embassy, all high-level visits have been put off right until June and the workload in the commercial section has dropped by half.

The Americans have already begun evacuating non-essential staff and have issued a travel warning for Beijing. Some countries - Thailand, Malaysia, Australia - are refusing entry to people from Beijing unless they undergo quarantine to ensure they are not infected. It takes at least five days before one can be sure.

Some ambassadors are still saying it is all a storm in a teacup and after all there are plenty of other deadly diseases around in China such as Japanese encephalitis which carried off a neighbour last year.

Yet this is bound to be very different. There is no cure and it is spreading fast enough to be come a worldwide pandemic with unknowable consequences.

"I hear that in the summer, when the temperatures are high, the disease will burn itself out," says my wife optimistically, reporting another "fact" gleaned from a morning's intensive gossiping. People also keep repeating another "fact", namely that SARS is fatal "only" in four per cent of cases.

Some friends are wondering that if they wait too long, they might never be able to leave. With business coming to a halt all over China, and especially in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific is considering suspending all its flights. All air travel could come to a stop.

The Chinese leadership's response has been quite medieval too, especially now that it is blaming it on a conspiracy of foreigners.

A China Daily editorial said: "The malicious attacks on China by some of the Western media are actually a resurrection of the 'China containment theory'. This has reflected the fact that the mentality of some people in the West remains in the Cold War stage. . . Facts have spoken for themselves. In tackling the SARS, the Chinese government has shown the highest degree of responsibility and co-operation with the international community."

In China the traditional official response to such emergencies is known as the three monkey strategy, "hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing". After the outbreak in Guangdong last November, officials issued reassuring statements that it was all "basically solved" until it had spread to Hong Kong and from there around the world.

It is turning out to be a staggering miscalculation.

"The way it behaves has come as a shock to many investors who thought things had changed here," says another ambassador, who predicted "This could be China's Chernobyl". Mikhail Gorbachev used the nuclear meltdown in the Ukraine to drive his Glasnost policy, and to discredit the old USSR system. Here too the government has deliberately issued false statements even to the World Health Organisation and is only now relenting because the secrecy is damaging the economy.

News of the first case in Beijing was held back for a month because nothing must ruin the National People's Congress held in March. Even after that, only a few cases were admitted.

This provoked 72-year-old Dr Jiang Yanyong of the People's Liberation Army Hospital 301, who figured he had nothing to lose, into revealing that in fact there were possibly hundreds of cases in Beijing's many hospitals. One had even been forced to close.

China is now protesting that it is simply that it is calculating the numbers of cases quite differently from other people but it is resisting demands by the World Health Organisation to allow its experts into these military hospitals.

Even so, as the Premier, Mr Wen Jiabao, admits the situation is "grave", the Chinese media keep publishing reassuring stories.

One claims you can eat your way to respiratory health by taking a porridge, involving spare ribs, white fungus and lotus leaves just concocted by traditional Chinese medical experts.