Monday, Apr. 21, 2003

A hospital worker in Beijing performs her chores at an isolation ward for SARS

A team of World Health Organization (WHO) officials who visited Beijing's China-Japan Friendship Hospital last week to investigate the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) raging in the country were taken for a ride. So, it turns out, were the patients. Sources tell TIME that before the WHO team arrived at the hospital, 31 coughing, shivering staff members who had caught SARS from patients were hastily loaded into ambulances and driven around until the investigators left.

China claims the virus that causes SARS has infected 1,530 of its citizens and killed 67, but WHO officials suspect the numbers are higher. "We have clearly told the government the international community doesn't trust your figures," said Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative to China. "Now it's time to start building some trust."

That will take some doing. Across China's capital last week, officials went to extraordinary lengths to conceal SARS patients from WHO inspectors. A doctor at the No. 309 People's Liberation Army Hospital says 46 patients were pulled out of their beds and moved to a hotel on the hospital grounds just before the WHO team got there. At the No. 302 People's Liberation Army Hospital, where two wards had been filled to capacity, only a handful of the ailing were on site for the WHO visit.

Some provincial health workers are equally unlikely to be candid. At a secret staff meeting overheard by a TIME reporter, Dr. Zhang Hanwei, director of the Shanxi Provincial People's Hospital in Taiyuan, relayed what he called the "three nos" disseminated by China's Ministry of Central Publicity: no talking to the media about SARS, no talking to the public about treating the disease and no tattling to WHO if its experts come calling. And with that warning, the meeting ended. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the epidemic.

-- With reporting by Susan Jakes and Huang Yong/Beijing

From the Apr. 28, 2003 issue of TIME magazine,9171,1101030428-444980,00.html