Sat, Jul 05, 2003 - Page 2 News List

Taipei City emerging from shadow of SARS

DISEASE AFTERMATH While the nation is waiting to be removed from the WHO's list of SARS-affected areas, life has largely returned to normal in the capital city

AP , TAIPEI

Taiwan is now the only place on the World Health Organization's (WHO) global list of SARS-infected areas.

But judging from the busy shopping malls, restaurants, night spots and a surge in travelers, it seems that many people have already declared the nation free of the often-deadly virus.

"It's nice to see life coming back to normal," said businessman Wu Chia-wen at Taipei main station, where until about a week ago people were required to wear a face mask.

"A month ago, I was the only passenger on a train car, and it was such a ghostly air," Wu said, recalling his last business trip to the east of the country.

Fear of the highly contagious illness soared in late April when the nation -- which initially was successful in fending off SARS -- lost control of the virus at hospitals in Taipei.

Unprepared

Medical centers -- the source of 90 percent of the infections -- weren't prepared to deal with SARS. Patients who weren't properly isolated or diagnosed quickly spread the virus.

The outbreak forced officials to require all passengers on trains and the MRT to wear surgical masks. People began avoiding public places. Flights were canceled, once-bustling restaurants emptied out and shopping plazas became quiet.

But hard-hit Taipei and other places are coming back to life now that SARS appears to be quickly fading. As of yesterday, the nation has gone 19 days without a new infection since the last SARS patient was isolated in a hospital.

The disease dealt a big blow to the economy. The average hotel occupancy rate in May dropped to 22 percent in the capital, according to the Taipei City Government.

Now that tough quarantine measures have been dropped, airlines, hotels and travel agents are slashing prices to lure back customers.

Allen Wang, an office worker, joined eight friends and neighbors on a three-day trip to Kinmen, taking advantage of a package tour with a 50 percent price cut.

"It's time to have some social activities and keep up contact with friends," he said at Sungshan Airport.

At Hotel Leo Foo in downtown Taipei, manager Emily Lin tended to customers who filled up a restaurant serving a Japanese-style buffet of sushi and roast beef.

Local customers filled the hotel last month under a promotional campaign, she said.

Bringing back customers

"We hope foreign customers will return after we are removed from the list of infected areas," she said.

The government has not released figures on the economic losses.

But data compiled by Taipei City Councilor Chen Hui-min (陳惠敏) showed revenues from tourism, dining, transportation and entertainment outlets dropped by at least 80 percent, or NT$37 billion, in May in Taipei.

About 78 percent of the nation's SARS cases were in the capital.

Chen's aide, Sung Su-mei, thought it will be a long time before Taipei fully recovers from SARS.

"SARS was a bitter experience for all," Sung said, "but I'm afraid Taipei citizens have yet to walk out of its shadow."

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