Listening: China: The War at Home




China: The War at Home


Hardly had the war in Iraq finished when China found themselves swept up by a far less controversial and more immediate war at home: the battle against a new and lethal virus that has quickly reached epidemic around the world.

In China it is called atypical pneumonia, the disease, defined by the World Health Organization in March 2003 as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Until early April, the epidemic, which originated in South China's Guangdong Province in February had hardly been mentioned in the Chinese media.

When the media silence on SARS broke, the overwhelming tone was the official line that "the disease was already brought under effective control" and "Beijing remained as normal and safe as ever".

The media's apparent light-heartedness began to withdraw around April 9 when Wen Jiabao, China's new prime minister, told the nation that the situation regarding the SARS outbreak "is grave". Even in the week following this admission, the amount of SARS infections and deaths released by the Ministry of Health and the Beijing municipal government were widely believed to be low.

The real turning point in Chinese media coverage came on April 20, following a press conference given by a new official from the Ministry of Health, Vice Minister Gao Qiang. The figures he released at the press conference showed that Beijing had 346 confirmed SARS cases with 18 deaths, instead of 37 cases with 4 deaths, as previously reported. From that day on, the Ministry of Health has released the national SARS statistics daily to the public.

Now the country's media have devoted much more time to the battle against the new killer, which as of April 22 had claimed 102 lives in China and had infected 2,317 people. For instance, the April 21 edition of Beijing Daily (government-owned) devoted an entire page to methods for disinfecting the home, the importance of wearing a surgical mask, and suggested prescriptions for preventing SARS.

On April 23, Beijing Evening News, a popular tabloid-newspaper in China's capital with a circulation of nearly 2 million, devoted six of the 16 pages in its first section to the war against SARS. One of the stories featured the experience of a nurse from a local hospital who has just recovered from the disease. The same day's Wen Hui Bao, a Shanghai-based popular newspaper among intellectuals, gave five of its 12 pages to overcome to cover the SARS article.



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