Sars could further widen the growing wealth gap between urban and rural areas, an expert warned yesterday. Zhang Xiaoshan, director of rural development research under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said income growth in rural areas this year was set to fall because of the outbreak. He believed the income growth rate for people in the countryside would be lower than the 4 per cent set by the government this year. Sars has hit the service sector hard, including restaurants, hotels, tourism and public transport operators, driving millions of migrant workers back home after they lost their jobs in the cities. Many migrant workers who stayed on in the cities had also lost their jobs. Many others also fled out of fear, and those migrant workers who remained in the cities saw their income shrink because many lost their jobs, according to Dr Zhang. These developments will deal the rural economy a hard blow because remittances from migrants working in the urban areas accounted for more than one third of rural income last year. A survey by the Ministry of Agriculture showed that about 10 million migrant workers returned home at the peak of the Sars outbreak. Dr Zhang said migrant workers now heading back to the cities would not find it as easy as before to find jobs. Cities have imposed much stricter restrictions on employers hiring migrant workers and have tightened up on residential hygiene standards, meaning it will be difficult for the workers to find cheap accommodation. 'At least for these two months, many have no income. And it is more difficult for them to come back to the cities now,' he said. Dr Zhang said Sars had underscored the vulnerability of the poor in times of emergencies, and he called for reforms to address the cause of the problem. 'Sars has made it clear that if the vulnerable groups suffer, the whole economy will be affected,' he said. He called on the government to relieve the financial burden of farmers by reducing agricultural tax, and to overhaul public finances to benefit rural people. Only people living in urban areas enjoy social welfare provided by the government while those in the countryside must pay for their own education and other services.