Letter 14 - April 2003
This will be an unusual letter because of the exceptional current circumstances in China due to the SARS virus epidemic. First of all, the news from Ningxia : until now the epidemic has spread only to the provincial capital, Yinchuan, where five confirmed and five suspect cases have been officially reported, all cases consisting of passengers on a train from Beijing. Our friends have called us from their village in the south of Ningxia because they are worried about us in Beijing.
Apparently there is no sign yet of the epidemic in their area : one of the (rare) advantages of being cut off from the large exchange centres ...
Having said that, this epidemic has considerably paralysed our activity, with the exception of the bursaries, which are following their normal course. All activities of solidarity which we undertook have been put on hold pending better days. The French schools of Beijing and Hongkong which planned to act in order to help the School in Yuwang, have been closed for several weeks, and, at best, will not get back to their normal rythm before the start of the new academic year in September.
Also, the Hermes sales in Beijing, which were to benefit our Association, which should have taken place this month, have been postponed to the summer, and, without doubt, beyond. Travel within the country is also strongly advised against, in order not to risk contributing to the diffusion of the virus. This does not prevent the attainment of any of our aims but delays the project for the provision of equipment to the School in the form of books and computers. This will be partly postponed.
Nevertheless one cannot fail to talk about this epidemic, the manner in which it is managed by the Chinese authorities and the lessons to be learnt from it. As is sufficiently known today, the government has played down and tried to conceal the epidemic, which originated last November in the province of Canton, before reaching Hong-Kong and then the rest of the world, and before spreading, in the absence of preventive measures, to the other parts of China, starting with Beijing, where it rages today. The Government eventually recognised its own failures and took some more energetic measures after a few days.
At the time of writing, Beijing is a dead city, as if hit by a nuclear explosion. The roads and shops are empty ; everybody is shut inside their homes in fear, with stocks of food. Thousands of people have been quarantined, a large number of which are in two of the citys hospitals that have been closed due to contamination of medical personnel. The number of confirmed cases goes up by a hundred a day in Beijing, and much less raoidly in the country. The epidemic is far from having reached its peak and from being contained.
That said, the panic of Beijings population is due not so much to the virus itself, but more to the fact that the truth was kept from them and that they no longer believe anything but the craziest rumours. One can continue to live normally in Beijing, and anywhere else in China, if one takes certain minimal precautions. This illness is serious, but individual risk remains limited, in my eyes.
This epidemic is above all revelatory of the worrying state of the Public Health Authorities. The readers of The Diary of Ma Yan will not be surprised to learn that healthcare is only provided against payment in China today, and that two thirds of more of the 1.3 billion Chinese have been gradually excluded from the public health system which, yes, was rudimentary in the past, but much more egalitarian than it is today, in a China which is more prosperous but suffers from flagrant inequalities. If the virus where to reach the south of Ningxia, it would be a disaster as not only are the sanitary infrastructures insufficient, but, above all, the villagers have lost the right to free health care. At the WHOs request, the Government was happy to announce free medication for SARS for the poorest citizens, but this message is not widely spread and has definitely not reached such distant and cut-off places in the countryside.
In China, not only has public expenditure been at a low for 20 years, but 70% of the expenditure goes to urban centres, that is to say 15% of the population. There are those who wish this tendency to be reversed, but they are not listened to. Once the urgency of the war on SARS, now covered intensely by the official media in China, has gone, we will be left with this issue of imbalance of expenditures, as well as the issue of citizens access to information. It is not certain that China will draw any good lessons from this crisis. As for ourselves, once the health hazard has passed, we will carry on with our initiative of solidarity with the forgotten population of Ningxia, hoping that the epidemic will not have reached their region at any stage. We will keep you up to date with any new developments.
Beijing, 26 April 2003