China unveiled the full extent of the epidemic to its citizenry for the first time last week. Panic ensued.

I went into a bar yesterday and – in between the wall-size replica of Mt. Rushmore and the jazz paintings – there were tables full of people smoking. That anyone should be there at all was a bit of a surprise; ordinarily, Chinese bars are about as populated as a Nevada desert.

“Yufang,” an acquaintance explained to me, offering me a cigarette, “Precaution.” She did not have to tell me what the precaution was against: feidian, also known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

After covering up the SARS virus from its citizenry for six months, China unveiled the full extent of the epidemic to its citizenry for the first time last week. Panic ensued. Hundreds of thousands of passengers crowded onto trains to get out of Beijing, where announced cases shot up from 37 to 500-plus in two days, and continued to climb at a rate of 100 new cases a day. The army was called in to enforce quarantine orders

Life in Handan, the city I live in 250 miles south of Beijing, has begun to change in small ways. For example, there are the new plastic sheets that have been laid out over the nut and dried fruit bins at the supermarket. People look at you a bit more warily when you pass them in the street. Disinfectants have sold out at all the local pharmacies. Gauze masks, ordinarily worn by an occasional bike rider to keep out pollution, are now a fashion statement de rigueur (even though they do little to prevent inhalation of the virus).

I have been asked to take ribaviran as a precaution, a drug that is ordinarily used to treat AIDS and hepatitis patients. Other advertised therapies include garlic, radishes and some sort of herbal soup. At the library, where I work as an English teacher, staff members walk around spraying some sort of cleansing agent from a pump attached to a Coke bottle. It smells like bleach.

Handan has either one or two suspected cases of SARS right now, depending on who you believe (the newspaper says one). This minor threat was enough to cancel my lectures last week at a school on the city’s west side. The foreign affairs office, an adjunct of the police department, is particularly concerned about adverse publicity if any foreigners come down with the virus.

Only two or three dozen foreigners live in Handan, a smoggy, industrial city of 1.3 million. Most are German engineers, with the remainder a sampling of Canadian, African and British teachers. I have heard rumors of another American but have not met him.

My English-teaching colleagues are all very nervous, and pester my school’s director about what precautions they should take and whether there are any confirmed cases in the city. I give it less thought – there are some things you can’t control.

For months, my plan had been to travel down to Chongqing during the May “Golden Week” holiday to see the Yangtze River. The first phases of the Three Gorges Dam are scheduled to go into effect this summer, and assume full capacity by 2009. When the dam begins to generate power, water levels in the Yangtze will rise substantially, submerging towns, natural beauty and 2,000-year-old historical artifacts.

My travel plans have been canceled, or at least, postponed. China’s crowded train lines – where they sometimes pile people into the aisles and on the tables – are a natural festering ground for the transmission of disease. I was warned that if I traveled I would have to go to the western side of Hebei Province upon my return for several days of medical checks. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but the idea of going to a SARS testing center did not excite me.

Others are facing a threat more serious than a lost tourist excursion.

China’s delay in releasing full information about the outbreak – combined with the lack of scientific knowledge about it – gave the virus time to establish itself all across the globe. It has a surprisingly high mortality rate, hovering at 5 percent and threatening to climb in the short term.

I turn on the TV news to get some information but find only 10-minute specials on health spas or Internet bars. China’s newspapers have been better; the People’s Daily is posting new SARS numbers several times a day, a grim kind of stock index.

Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong have been designated as the fall guys and sacked. President Hu Jintao, two months into his administration, is lauded by the government-run press for his “leadership” during the crisis.

His government has belatedly rolled into emergency action – the real test of leadership lies ahead.

Five hours away by train, Beijing usually seems light years away. In the case of SARS, though, it is all too close.

We await the news nervously.

Jeremy Breningstall is a 1997 graduate of Bates College. He is working in Handan, China, teaching at a private English school.

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