by Antoaneta Bezlova
(IPS) BEIJING --
all-out war to contain the spread of SARS has spread to cyberspace, indicating the influence of a young but thriving Internet society in the world's most populous nation.
Authorities have detained 107 people for spreading rumors about the situation around the Severe Acute Respiratory Situation (SARS) over the Internet and through mobile text messaging -- a sign that authorities are worried about social stability in a city that is fighting an uphill battle to contain the illness.
The arrests took place in 17 provinces and cities, including Beijing, Guangdong and Hebei provinces -- all areas designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as SARS-affected.
Rumors on the SARS grapevine in Beijing in recent days have ranged from the declaration of martial law in the capital to authoritative "internal data" about the "real numbers" of SARS infections and descriptions of night raids by military planes spraying disinfectants over the city.
China's Internet crackdown shows the government is serious in its threats against rumormongers that are spreading SARS hoaxes among an increasingly volatile public in this country of 1.2 billion people.
SARS has killed 252 people in China and infected more than 5,000 as of May 12, accounting for some 65 percent of the world's cases, according to the World Health Organization. Worldwide, SARS has affected 7,447 people in some 33 countries, of whom 552 have died.
The number of new cases reported in China appeared to taper off in recent days, with the number falling to below 100 on Monday for the third straight day from up to 150 at one point. "It has been consecutive days that we have only a few deaths, but people worry whether the government is telling the truth," says Dou Youmei, a salesclerk at Aijia furniture shop.
Beijing Health Bureau vice director Liang Wannian said SARS cases in the capital were showing signs of declining, but the World Health Organization disputed the claim and remains cautious.
"It is too early to tell if SARS has peaked or not peaked," incoming WHO director Yong-Wook Lee said. He added that Beijing still had 1,500 suspected cases, many of which are expected to become confirmed cases. In addition, 18,608 people remain under quarantine.
In Beijing where the authorities at first covered up the epidemic, Internet and mobile messaging had been the public's secret weapons in getting to grips with what was going on. Rumors were quick to hit the streets about the mysterious virus weeks before the government came clean about the scope of the epidemic on April 27.
Hundreds of folklore tips have been circulated. Word spread that while vinegar made the best disinfectant and that chewing, or wearing cloves of garlic, is the best prevention methods against SARS.
Eating barbecued spare ribs was recommended too, to keep the lungs working when infected with acute respiratory diseases. Drinking 'Baijiu' -- the local grain spirit brew -- and chain smoking were trumpeted as a sure enough way to keep the virus at bay.
"Health experts dismissed all these folk recipes but people were scared," says Zhao Wei, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. "Many thought it was better drinking and smoking that being quarantined and dying."
The amount of information on SARS exchanged electronically has risen by the day as city dwellers try to avoid face-to-face contacts and work from home. China had 59.1 million Internet users at the end of last year, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre, the world's second-largest Internet population after the United States.
"I got used looking at sina.com [one of China's most popular Internet portals] three times a day," says Wang Xuan, a media employee. "I wanted to know the death figures and what places in the cities I had to avoid because of the quarantine."
In recent days however, a wave of sporadic protests over mushrooming SARS quarantine sites across the country have made the government tighten the flow of information on the subject of SARS . The country operates an extensive "Internet police" network in charge of enforcing a strict control of on-line content.
Some of the rumors asserted that SARS virus was a biological weapon released by the United States to intimidate China and hinder its emergence as a superpower. The reasons cited were that while the United States has detected a couple of scores of SARS cases, no one has died of SARS yet.
"My father is an old Communist Party member and he swears that the Americans have a secret drug to treat SARS," says Xiong Jiayan, a former chef who operates a private bakery.
The four people detained in Beijing for spreading rumors were tracked down after the Internet rule enforcers intercepted their messages, Xinhua said.
"Using SARS as an excuse, they purposefully spread harmful rumors causing social panic, undermining the fight against the spread of the disease and destroying social order," the report said. It did not provide details on what crime the detainees would be charged with.
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