Farmers barricade roads near the capital

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2003, 12:00am

As Sars panic spreads, villagers have set up checkpoints and banned any visitors

Farmers in rural Beijing have barricaded roads and set up 24-hour checkpoints, fearing that Sars may spread to the countryside.

Almost all villages near major tourist attraction the Ming Tombs in northwestern Beijing were sealed off from outsiders with makeshift road blocks and sign boards saying: 'Visitors are prohibited as a precaution against Sars.'

Local cadres from village committees were seen guarding entrances to villages. Many said they did so not only to prevent outsiders from entering, but to stop villagers from leaving.

In Changlingyuan village, local cadres guarding the village entrances said villagers were not allowed any contact with outsiders to prevent them contracting the deadly virus.

When asked what the village should do about food, a village committee official said: 'We will see after we run out of supplies.'

In Shangkou village, a shelter was built near the roadblocks to check passers-by. A teenager said the village committee had hired 20 villagers to guard the village entrance in shifts. Each was paid 30 yuan (HK$28) per day, he said.

Local doctor Duan Zhizhong said the village had received orders 'from above' to seal off the entrance about five days ago.

'We will do that until the order comes that we can lift the ban,' he said, answering queries from an old woman about how to read a thermometer. A loudspeaker behind him was broadcasting announcements from the village committee asking villagers to collect thermometers rationed to each household.

An official from the Ministry of Health told the South China Morning Post yesterday that the ministry had never issued such orders and villagers were driven by panic.

'They don't have enough knowledge about the disease. It is not necessary to do this and I don't think the move is good for their long-term development.

'They are panicking and they may overreact. But I believe they will be much calmer in a few days.'

When asked about 'the order from above', the official said he believed the village committees might have reached some 'consensus' with the local health authorities without notifying the central government.

But villagers have reason to panic. In Huzhuang village near the main entrance to the Ming Tombs, a residential compound was sealed off on April 26 after the first Sars case was found.

A 20-year-old girl contracted the disease after visiting her aunt in Beijing city. She is now in Changping Hospital, according to an official from the local residence committee.

Four households in the compound have been isolated.

Not far away in Nanxin village, two families related to a Sars patient were isolated and under village committee surveillance.

Nanxin villagers said none from the isolated households had shown symptoms of Sars, but residents from nearby villages, including Changlingyuan, are gripped by fear. 'Of course we are scared, but that is all we can do,' said a local cadre guarding the village.

Health officials agreed the next two weeks would be crucial to decide whether the measures to stop the virus penetrating the countryside would be useful.

Migrant workers began fleeing Beijing on April 25. More are expecting to leave during the Labour Day holidays.