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Taiwan - China Clash Over Treatment Of SARS

by Antoaneta Bezlova

(IPS) BEIJING -- The mass resignation of nurses and doctors fighting the SARS outbreak in Taiwan presents a striking contrast to the picture that China is presenting in Beijing's own battle to contain the epidemic.

More than 150 Taiwanese health workers resigned from their hospitals this week, fearing they are in danger of catching the deadly virus that has made more than 8,000 ill and killed nearly 700 people around the world.

Medical workers on the Chinese mainland do not have the freedom to resign as the government battles the worst SARS outbreak in the world. No such resignations or complaints have been made public in the official Chinese press.

By contrast, the state press has portrayed medical staff fighting the disease in Beijing as "white-coated warriors" on the "front line." Numerous reports have lauded their heroic spirit and extolled the nation to follow their example and join the 'people's war' against SARS.

By contrast, the press in Taiwan took on the government, criticizing it for failing to provide adequate protection for medical staff. More than 90 percent of all the known infections on the island are among health workers, according to the health ministry of Taiwan, which Beijing considers its province.

"It is not that we are evading our responsibility but we don't want to return to the sad place where some of our colleagues had died after unknowingly catching the deadly virus from SARS patients," the Taiwanese media quoted one doctor as saying.

But the reality behind Beijing's slogans has been different, said people who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Going there is like getting a death sentence," said one man whose wife, a physician, has been working in a SARS-designated hospital for three weeks now without leave.

"You go in and you don't know when you are coming out. If there are not many patients, there is hope that she will be back after the month is up. But if there are many cases, she would have to stay. There are simply not enough medical workers," he said.

China is the nation worst-stricken by the SARS epidemic. The country has reported 5,271 infections and 300 deaths as of May 22. The capital Beijing -- by far the hardest-hit place in the world -- accounted for 158 of the deaths along with 2, 456 of the SARS cases. Of the SARS cases, 395 are reported to be among health workers.

After initially playing down the outbreak, the government has resorted to extreme measures since April in its all-out war to fight the SARS epidemic.

Beijing has seen its SARS numbers falling in recent days partly because of a gruelling regime imposed on medical staff, who have been working 18 to 20 hour shifts, without leaving the SARS 'frontline' for as long as 40 days.

Authorities have threatened to revoke the medical licenses of those who refuse to join the SARS fight or fled, sources said. Expulsions from the Communist Party have been cited as possible punishment for those party members who waver.

In its efforts to contain the epidemic, the government has exhorted SARS hospitals to achieve the "two decreases" -- a decrease in the death rate of SARS patients and a decrease in the infection rates among health workers.

Heeding these instructions, SARS hospitals have given doctors and nurses courses of interferon -- an immunity-boosting drug to ward off the virus, said one source. "Patients terminally ill with cancer get interferon but we don't know what side effects it could have on healthy people," she said.

No dissenting views or refusals to comply with orders by authorities have been allowed. "If my wife or her colleagues refuse to do their job, they would lose their licenses and never get another job," said the physician's husband. "Only janitors and cleaners have left the SARS hospitals. They have nothing to lose."

In another sign that China is fighting an uncompromising battle to stem the spread of the disease, the government has promulgated a new law on infectious diseases, one that threatens harsh punishment for anyone in any way hindering the prevention or treatment of sudden disease outbreaks.

The harshest punishments are reserved for those caught violating quarantine and spreading the SARS virus intentionally -- they will face 10 years to life in prison or the death penalty. But even those spreading rumors, fabricating news or raising false alarms can, under the new law, get prison terms.

The ambitious propaganda campaign launched by China's government continues to promise people that if "we fight the virus with one heart and one mind, we are sure to defeat it." In a throwback to the mass mobilization campaigns of the Maoist era, anti-SARS bulletin boards feature nurses and doctors with clenched fists and exalted expressions.

To those who have survived the numerous propaganda campaigns under the leadership of Mao Zedong (1949-1976), the new revolutionary zeal seems out of place.

"I disagree with the government propaganda saying that SARS can be exterminated and cured, because it is not true," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist from China People's University. "People will learn that even medical workers are dying, nowadays you can't keep it secret. You have to tell people the truth and let them get used to it."

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Albion Monitor May 23, 2003 (

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