China Kept SARS Secret

SARS: A street in Hong Kong. AP

In Hong Kong, anyone is a potential victim and everyone a potential threat.

People don't touch subway railings or escalator handrails or even elevator buttons. Schools are closed — delighting children. And restaurants are empty — depressing owners.

Wendy Kwok is a public relations executive who, these days, skips going to movies and curbs her natural instincts to be polite with friends and clients.

"When you meet people, you don't shake their hand anymore," she says. "You just kind of give them a wave and everyone understand why you don't."

No one knows what spawned the virus months ago, but most think it started in the Chinese countryside, most likely in the province just outside Hong Kong.

The Chinese knew about the outbreak, but ordered silence from their state-run media. The National People's Congress bans bad news, and the initial outbreak wasn't an exception. China, say its critics, chose to save face, rather than saves lives.

Only this week did it allow World Health Organization investigators into the hardest-hit province. And on Friday, China issued an apology for keeping its deadly secret — a stunning admission by a government that rarely admits mistakes.

Finally, investigators say, China has thrown its books wide open. The kind of information is very detailed. What doctors didn't know in those first months started killing them. Health care workers were among the hardest hit. At least two doctors have died.

Dr. Bing Lim heads a SARS swat team at a Hong Kong hospital. He goes home at night, but he won't touch the ones he loves most. He hasn't given his children a hug in the past two to three weeks.

"I ask my kids to stay away from me, so we just keep some distance," Dr. Lim says.

The world might not have noticed SARS, except for what happened at the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong. A Chinese doctor, unaware he was infected, traveled there. Somehow, maybe something as ordinary as coughing in a crowded elevator, he passed the infection on to a half-dozen people from various countries. Among them was a couple visiting from Toronto, Canada.

They boarded flights home and SARS started spreading at the speed of a jet plane. China might have slowed the spread of SARS by coming clean sooner. But now, like the frightened people of Hong Kong, the whole world is at risk.

  • Rome Neal

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