Echoes of Sars as Beijing turns into a ghost city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am


With the streets deserted, residents gripped by fear and mistrust, and government officials tight-lipped, the mood in Beijing recalls the spring of 2003, when the capital was caught in the throes of the Sars epidemic.

After days of torrential downpours and flooding, Beijing seemed like an abandoned city last night, with cars staying off the road thanks to a forecast of rain.

Juliette Sun, who works in an office in Chaoyang district , said only a third of the usual number of cars were on the road as she travelled home.

'It reminded me of the days during the Sars outbreak,' Sun said. 'The bus ride usually takes 90 minutes but yesterday it took only an hour for me to get home in the north fifth ring.'

Microbloggers uploaded pictures of empty subway trains at peak hours. 'The whole city is taking shelter because of the rain ... it's worse than during the Sars outbreak,' wrote one user. Another blogger uploaded a picture taken at 9.30pm of subway Line 1 which showed only an empty platform.

Residents expressed disbelief when on Sunday municipal officials said the death toll from the flooding stood at 37 people. In the days that followed, doubt turned to anger as officials refused to update the figure and the media were told to carry only positive coverage of the disaster.

The municipal government addressed the public outcry on Tuesday, with spokeswoman Wang Hui saying it wasn't hiding anything. 'We learned our lessons from Sars. Everyone should know that we'll speak the truth,' she said.

The city government said on its official microblog that the search for victims was made difficult because of damaged mountain roads. 'The search is coming to an end and we will release the latest death toll,' it said. Beijing finally did last night, revising the figure upwards to 77.

But the four-day wait aroused suspicion in a jaded public.

In 2003, officials covered up deaths caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) for weeks until rumours were so rampant about a mysterious disease that people in Guangdong descended on supermarkets to buy vinegar in a misguided effort to protect themselves.

As the disease spread to Beijing, city authorities tried to cover it up as the capital was hosting the National People's Congress' annual meeting. When the death toll was revealed, people panicked. Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong and Health Minister Zhang Wenkang were later sacked.

This time, several bloggers have taken it upon themselves to collate the number of victims.

Microblogger Wen Yunchao has been compiling a list based on public reports.

'The list was compiled because we don't trust the government,' he said. 'This is also my way of commemorating the dead people as well. They should not be forgotten.'