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Acting mayor says SARS uncontrolled

BEIJING — BEIJING - In a live, televised news conference, the new acting mayor of Beijing called the SARS epidemic severe and uncontrolled yesterday as he sought to convince a panicky public that the battle against the disease had been effectively joined at last.

"We are now facing up to this grave difficulty," said the acting mayor, Wang Qishan, a former banking chief and a protege of the no-nonsense former prime minister, Zhu Rongji.

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Wang was summoned to Beijing 10 days ago to replace the former mayor, Meng Xuenong, who was fired for his part in covering up the city's surging epidemic.

Showing the new face of candor that China's leaders adopted after months of denial led to medical and diplomatic disasters, Wang did not mince words yesterday - a day when reported cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the capital climbed by another 101, to 1,440. He admitted that the city had been sadly unprepared for the new disease, had misled the public about its spread and now faces a shortage of qualified hospitals and medical staff.

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"SARS is an epidemic that hit us head-on," Wang told domestic and foreign reporters and a national television audience.

Beijing's stores and restaurants are nearly empty as many people fear leaving their homes. Tiananmen Square, normally overflowing with visitors on a sunny spring day, is deserted.

While many Beijing residents said they were encouraged by Wang's statements, strong undercurrents of anger and mistrust remain.

"I'm upset because the government tried to cover this up for so long and now things are totally out of control," said Lin Qiuli, a tour operator. "Wang Qishan has a big job in front of him and it's too early to say whether he can do it."

Qi, a bar owner in the central city who would only give his surname, was more encouraged. "Wang Qishan is a good leader, very capable, and today was proof of that. He works hard and gets results.

"The government can really get things done when it wants to," Qi added.

But Hua, a teacher, complained, "The only thing anyone cares about right now is whether the government can get this under control, and that question wasn't answered."

Beijing imposed stringent quarantine measures only in the past week, as the reported number of confirmed SARS cases in Beijing was zooming from below 350 10 days ago to 1,440 yesterday, not including a similar high total of suspected cases.

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About 9,000 city residents have been put in isolation because of possible exposure to the infection, officials reported yesterday morning.

In an effort to curb the spread of SARS to other provinces, city authorities have sought to deter the movement of people out of Beijing, first discouraging and now formally barring university students and migrant workers from traveling home.

But the rules have not been well enforced and hundreds of thousands of people, at least, have fled the city, potentially spreading the virus throughout the country.

The city's public health agencies are still overwhelmed by the outbreak, the acting mayor acknowledged yesterday, unable to perform vital analysis of how fast the virus is spreading and where.

"The coming week will be of central importance for us as we monitor the development of the epidemic," Wang said yesterday, promising a decision soon as to whether the city's schools should be reopened May 7 or kept closed as a precaution.

Square-jawed and giving every appearance of competence and stern rectitude, Wang reminded some viewers yesterday of the retired Zhu.

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In style and substance, Wang differed sharply from his predecessor and from the dismissed former health minister, who were among the many officials telling the public that the epidemic was small and controlled.

"Due to a shortage of berths at designated hospitals, not all suspected SARS patients can be hospitalized there in a timely manner," Wang said yesterday, pointing to critical shortages in trained medical staff as well.



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