In November 2002, an outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in China’s Guangdong Province would go on to infect over 8000 people in 26 countries and result in almost 800 deaths.
Like the current novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that was discovered in the Chinese province of Wuhan, SARS is also part of the coronavirus family – a term given to a group of viruses which cause respiratory infections. Early onset symptoms include a high fever, headaches, body aches, overall discomfort, with a dry cough developing within two to seven days. For most, this will evolve into pneumonia, which can be lethal.
While SARS was declared as ‘contained’ in July 2003, the Chinese government was accused of hampering efforts to control the spread of the virus.
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It took the World Health Organisation (WHO) three months to be alerted of the disease, with the Chinese government underplaying the reach and spread of the disease both nationally and abroad.
In 2003, the southern city of Guangdong had aims of a GDP growth of 12.2 per cent and it’s believed officials didn’t want the threat of what could have been a life-threatening epidemic to deter foreign investors and businesses.
Despite Beijing being one of the epicentres of the virus, China’s Minister of Health, Zhang Wenkang, stated in a public press conference on April 3, 2003, there were only 12 cases of SARS in the capital city. He said the disease was “under effective control” and called the city a “safe place to live and visit”.
In actual fact, staff in two of Beijing’s major hospitals claimed there were at least seven deaths and 106 cases of the virus.
The day after, a prominent physician and senior member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Dr Jiang Yanyong, wrote an 800-word letter speaking against the claims made by the Minister of Health. Risking his safety and freedom to do so, he shared his letter with Chinese Central Television and the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV. Neither station agreed to publish it and it was later picked up by Time magazine.