U student: SARS changes life in China

According to the WHO, 3,300 SARS cases plague China.

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

With her parents working in Beijing hospitals, University graduate student Joy Du is ready to fly home to Beijing if necessary.

“I would fly back immediately if one of them got SARS,” Du said. “If people die from SARS, it usually happens within three or four days.”

The World Health Organization has lifted a travel advisory to Toronto and also reported that Vietnam no longer has SARS cases. But Beijing has been hit severely.

While incidence of the disease is small compared with Beijing’s total population, Du said people’s fear of SARS has changed almost every aspect of daily life.

“People just want to stay home to minimize interaction with other people,” Du said. “It’s a big hit to Beijing’s economy. People don’t want to do business there or spend money on recreation.”

According to WHO, there are more than 3,300 SARS cases in China and more than 5,400 cases worldwide. On Tuesday, the Chinese government reported nine new SARS deaths, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 300 deaths worldwide.

Reading about the problem and talking with her parents daily has shown Du that if Chinese government and health officials are not proactive about SARS, it could have profound effects on China’s economy and social welfare.

“It’s really changing people’s lives,” she said. “In some places it’s under control, but it spreads so fast, especially in China because it’s so crowded.”

Earlier this week, the hospital where Du’s father works was quarantined after a SARS case was discovered. No one can enter or leave the hospital for two weeks, Du said, which is how long it takes for SARS symptoms to appear.

The hospital where Du’s mother works as a librarian was also quarantined after a security monitor became infected with SARS.

The Chinese government recently admitted SARS is a bigger problem than officials had said. Du said she was angered by the government’s failure to tell people the truth about SARS.

“I was so worried for my parents because we have so much more access to information here,” she said. “Two weeks ago, my mom and dad were not even aware of the situation.”

Her mom did not want to wear a face mask, Du said, because she thought it looked ridiculous. Now, she said, her mother always wears one.

Du said she is angry the Chinese government did not do more to prevent the spread of SARS and inform people about it.

“The government should have had enough time to prepare, but they didn’t treat it as a big problem,” Du said. She heard about the illness in February when it hit the southern province of Guangdong, where her relatives live.

Du got married this winter and was planning to celebrate with family and friends in Beijing this summer.

Even if it was easy for Du to go to China and return to Minneapolis in the fall, she said no one would want to party.

“The only thing we could do is stay home and wash our hands every 10 minutes,” she said. “It’s not a good time to celebrate.”

Though SARS has inconvenienced Du and her family, she said she is optimistic the situation will end soon.

“They say SARS can’t survive in hot weather,” she said.

International pressure has helped, Du said, but the government must keep people informed.

“When things get worse, there’s no way to hide it,” she said. “(The government) has to do a good job on this or else people won’t trust them anymore.”

Shanghai scare

University student Bob Xiong is now back in the United States, and the second-year mass communications student has had time to reflect on his early departure from studying at a Shanghai university due to the SARS outbreak.

Xiong’s study abroad semester was supposed to end in May. Instead he returned Monday.

“I really want this all to get out,” Xiong said, referring to both his Shanghai experience and the deception he said the Chinese government employed regarding SARS.

Xiong said he dismissed the first University Global Campus travel advisory warning students to leave China a few weeks ago.

“In March, we heard about SARS and didn’t think it was a big deal,” Xiong said. “When we went to Thailand, we wore face masks and were laughed at.”

But the firings of Beijing’s health minister and mayor spurred his early departure, he said.

“The truth is, we don’t know what’s going on,” Xiong said. “After the firings, and hearing about (Chinese officials) driving SARS patients around in vehicles and hiding them in motels, that really did it for me.”

Xiong said the control of information and the stoicism of the culture hampered the flow of information from outside sources.

“The government is the main source of information, and (the Chinese) followed that,” Xiong said. “Now the government misinformed them, and it is mind-blowing for them. They don’t know what to do.”

Xiong said extreme paranoia surfaced on the university campus and in the entire city.

“After what happened in Beijing, the students on the Chinese campus started freaking out,” he said. “Rumors spread that somebody had SARS and died.”

Xiong said disruption of campus life took on a drastic scale.

“A lot of students started skipping school, which is amazing because Chinese students are very focused and don’t really skip school,” he said.

Xiong also said the normally open gates of the campus had been closed, and officials were asking for identification to enter.

He said every store he entered sold facemasks and sanitation wipes.

Deciding to come home was not easy, Xiong said.

Xiong studied in Shanghai through the Center of International Educational Exchange, a New York-based independent study abroad organization. Xiong said the program is currently operating with eight of the original 30 students.

Amy Greeley, Global Campus program associate, said the Center of International Educational Exchange canceled its program in Beijing after a faculty member contracted SARS. The Shanghai program remains open.

“(Their center) maintains that the risk in Shanghai is not to such a level that it grants closing a program,” Greeley said.

Xiong said he is happy to be back to his life in the United States. Still, he said he remains worried for a friend under quarantine in China, as well as the other people he knows there who cannot leave.

“I hope this turns out well,” he said. “People and doctors are still getting sick. I think it’s getting worse before it gets better.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected] and Geoff Ziezulewicz welcomes comments at [email protected]