China implemented drastic quarantine measures yesterday to contain the SARS epidemic after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned against travel to three new locations including Beijing, where scenes of panic erupted.
After covering up severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreaks for months, China's state-run media began rallying the nation against what it called a "savage attack against mankind."
The backtracking came as the global death toll from SARS rose to 261 after eight new deaths in Hong Kong and China, and the World Bank warned the epidemic was damaging Asia's economy.
The WHO Wednesday added Beijing, the Chinese province of Shanxi and the Canadian city of Toronto to an earlier travel advisory on Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, sparking an angry reaction from Toronto and widespread anxiety in Beijing.
Shoppers besieged supermarkets in the Chinese capital, which has reported 39 SARS deaths and nearly 800 confirmed cases and the airport and train stations were packed with people fleeing the city.
"Beijing has become very dangerous. It's become too serious now. Me and my friends are leaving," said Korean student Song Seungki, one of many foreigners queuing for flights at Beijing airport.
Supermarkets reported a roaring trade in staples such as rice and cooking oil as rumors swirled the city would be isolated, while many other shops simply closed up as scared residents stayed at home.
The Beijing government said anybody suspected of having SARS and any area where the virus had been found would be isolated. Anybody who violated the order would be "severely punished."
The first victims were the city's prisons, where employees have been banned from leaving and family visits have been stopped. China's national library was shut while one of Beijing's biggest hospitals stopped admitting patients.
Meanwhile the WHO raised fears that SARS may have gained a toehold in the eastern city of Shanghai, which has a population of 16 million and has until now reported just two cases.
"Our team in China has clearly indicated that they feel there are probably more cases in Shanghai than have been reported," said David Heymann, WHO executive director of communicable diseases.
Canadian officials reacted with fury to the travel advisory and demanded the UN body send a team to investigate Toronto, where most of the 16 deaths and 330 SARS cases in Canada have been recorded.
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