A Hong Kong newspaper has reported that several hundred soldiers with high fevers and other SARS-like symptoms are allegedly being kept in isolation wards at a military hospital in Boading City in northeastern China’s Hebei Province. Local authorities have denied a SARS outbreak, but Chinese netizens are worried that, just as with the 2003 outbreak of SARS, the authorities are covering up a potential epidemic.
Reporters from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily went to the PLA 252 Hospital in Baoding on Feb. 24, where 300 soldiers are allegedly being isolated, with two said to have died. Three nearby hospitals were said to also have patients who exhibit SARS-like symptoms.
The visit by Apple Daily reporters follows upon posts last week on Hong Kong and mainland China blogs claiming SARS had reappeared in Baoding and in Dalian City in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province.
The reporters noted that the PLA 252 Hospital’s west wing was open to the public, but the east wing was guarded by military police wearing masks. The east wing is the infectious disease inpatient care unit, where many patients were treated during the 2003 SARS outbreak.
A guard at the east wing told an Apple Daily reporter that there were about 300 soldiers in isolation, and a retired hospital staff member said that specialists from Beijing’s 301 Hospital had joined the investigation. The soldiers had high fevers that wouldn’t go down, “so it’s more serious than the ordinary flu,” the retired staff member said.
A nearby street vendor told Apple Daily that soldiers with flu symptoms were initially sent to another military hospital about 10 days ago, but a few days later a large number of sick soldiers were taken to the PLA 252 Hospital for quarantine. Others still remain under quarantine at the Baoding Rongxiao Hospital, Baoding First Health Hospital, and Baoding City Infectious Disease Hospital, according to Apple Daily.
Local Residents’ Views
Cheng, a Baoding resident, told The Epoch Times on Feb. 25 that the Baoding Rongxiao Hospital is a facility for mentally ill military personnel, but recently it also put some suspected SARS patients in an isolation ward, and the hospital is no longer accessible to the public.
Staff at the Baoding Rongxiao Hospital did not respond to telephone inquiries by The Epoch Times whether the hospital was closed to the public and whether they had SARS patients. Because the PLA 252 Hospital is part of the military system of health care, it is not required to report an epidemic to city authorities.
You, a taxi driver in Baoding told The Epoch Times: “I drive around town every day and I heard that the PLA 252 Hospital has many soldiers infected with SARS or a mutated SARS virus, and the hospital is under lockdown. Some people said that some villages are under lockdown too. Our government is always trying to cover the facts, so ordinary citizens can only rely on their own analysis and judgment.”
Official Denials, Public Skepticism
Authorities in Hebei Province have denied a SARS outbreak. The Baoding City Health Bureau has also denied there are SARS cases and claimed that those said to have SARS in fact just had the flu. However, it later said that according to the regulation in the Infectious Disease Prevention Act, it cannot give specific answers for now. Postings and reports about SARS on major Chinese websites were removed starting Feb. 24.
On Feb. 26 Apple Daily had an update report, saying China’s Health Bureau has “confirmed” that the soldiers were infected by the 55 adenovirus.
Hospital staff said the hospital is operating normally and no hospital ward is in isolation, according to the Apple Daily update. Another doctor said that the soldiers were kept in isolation simply to “treat the soldiers and manage them in isolation [of other patients].”
Some netizens did not believe the Health Bureau’s clarification.
One Chinese blogger commented, “Why do we have to find out this kind of news through the media in Hong Kong or Taiwan?”
“When SARS started to break out in Guangdong in 2002, the government also said there’s no such thing,” Wang from Shanghai told The Epoch Times.
Xu from Zhejiang Province told The Epoch Times: “I don’t believe Health Bureau’s claim. Our government always lies to the people.”
On Feb. 24 Beijing authorities also announced the launch of the health emergency coordination system, which means that in case of a major epidemic, terrorist attack, or mass poison incident, paramilitary police can be deployed to handle the emergency without obtaining authorization first. This measure increased suspicion among bloggers.
The first case of what would come to be called SARS was reported in southern China’s Guangdong Province in November 2002.
The Epoch Times first reported this story in February 2003, at a time when official Chinese media denied SARS existed and Chinese-language media outside China mostly ignored the story. In March 2003, The Epoch Times reported over 300 stories on SARS, documenting the course of the disease before Chinese authorities officially acknowledged it in April 2003 in response to international pressure.