Beijing Center to close early due to SARS fears

While the fear of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) spreads across the globe, Saint Louis University students studying in China,the heart of the epidemic,do not feel threatened by the disease.

Four SLU students are part of The Beijing Center (TBC) program in the capital of China, which has decided to end the semester three weeks early and send the students home. TBC had already decided that any student who traveled to infected areas would not be allowed back into the program.

Beijing officials have recently come under fire by local Chinese doctors who say the Health Ministry in China has hidden the true number of SARS cases in Beijing.

Last week The Washington Post reported that, according to retired senior Chinese doctor Jiang Yanyong, 120 people were infected with the virus, and six have died in Beijing. The Health Ministry, however, only reported 22 cases and four deaths.

Due to the increased number of cases in Beijing, TBC is ending its program three weeks early, on April 23.

“The threat here at The Beijing Center, I feel, is very minor and not a real big danger to the students here,” said junior John Legens, a SLU student at TBC. “Granted, anyone can become infected with the disease, and you should take precautions since it is considered a threat by the authorities, but I don’t feel we are at a big threat.”

Senior Anna-Grace Claassen, another SLU student in China, agrees with Legens. “When this first started, I didn’t think anything about SARS. Beijing, and China for that matter, is huge. The amount of people actually infected is a drop in the bucket.”

The biggest fear of those studying in the program appears to be the consequences of getting the virus. There is only one hospital they would be able to go to, with no western doctors and possibly no one who speaks English.

“Many Chinese people I talk to do not fear the virus,” Claassen said. “Their reaction is, ‘Oh, it’s life. People are always sick. This is nothing new.’ I don’t think that the situation is as serious as some people make it out to be.

“Few Americans know what the situation is over here and act upon fear and hearsay, and as a result have caused our program to end early,” Claassen continued. “But the school’s decision can’t be changed, so unfortunately for me and the rest of the students, we have to end our travels and experiences early.”

The World Health Organization was allowed permission yesterday to visit military hospitals in Beijing. According to their Web site, the WHO hopes these inspections will either dispel or confirm rumors of the magnitude of SARS in the city. It also expresses the willingness by China to “come to terms” with the SARS problem on the mainland.

As of yesterday, there were a total of 3,235 cases of SARS and 154 deaths in 22 countries, an increase of 66 cases and 10 deaths from Monday.