In 2003, the Chinese government downplayed the true extent of the SARS outbreak. Then 774 people died.

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.


“I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he wrote. “All the doctors and nurses who saw yesterday’s news were furious.”

While Dr Jiang was initially placed on police surveillance and ordered not to speak to foreign press, he would later be lauded as a hero. Two weeks after his letter, the CPC sacked both the Minister of Health and the Mayor of Beijing. The government initiated public awareness campaigns and published higher and more accurate statistics related to the spread of the virus. As a result, foreign countries were also better equipped at reducing the spread of the disease as well.

A year later in February 2004, Dr Jiang was kidnapped and placed under military custody for his public criticisms of the CPC’s handling of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. While detained he underwent political brainwashing only to be released in July 2004.

Coronavirus Sars
Military surgeon Jiang Dr Jiang Yanyong speaking at a forum on the 10th anniversary of SARS in 2013. Image: Getty.

The Chinese media were also restricted from reporting on the SARS outbreak. The communication given to the Chinese public was also scarce.

The Guardian reports a sick traveller spread the disease from Guangdong, where the disease originated, to Beijing, over 2000 kilometres north. When the patient sought medical help, doctors weren't aware of the new illness and no quarantine measures were put in place.


Speaking to the BBC, an employee of the media company remembers her time working at a university during the SARS outbreak.

"I do remember being worried, but very poorly informed," she said. Instead, they relied on foreign reporting to compensate for the lack of official information.

Some of her colleagues even (incorrectly) believed that placing bowls of vinegar on burners would disinfect the air.

The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) later issued an unprecedented public apology over their management of the public health crisis. While they didn't admit to barring media from reporting on the outbreak, Director of the CDC, Li Liming, said their "medical departments and mass media suffered from poor co-ordination".

"We apologise to everyone," he said at a news conference on April 8, 2003.

"We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."

How has China managed the coronavirus in 2019-20?

The Chinese government has been much more co-operative this time around. The first cases of the novel coronavirus were detected after a pneumonia outbreak in December 2019.

By December 31, the public and the World Health Organisation were alerted of the virus. The disease was eventually identified as a novel strain of the coronavirus and its genetic sequence was shared openly with the international community by early January.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has also warned government officials against covering up cases of the 2019-nCoV virus. This sentiment was also echoed in a statement published by China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.

"Anyone who puts the face of politicians before the interests of the people will be the sinner of a millennium to the party and the people," it read.

"Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of [virus] cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity."

Currently, there are over 5000 globally confirmed cases of the disease with 130 deaths in China. Seven cases have been reported in Australia, with four confirmed patients in NSW, two in Victoria, and one in Queensland.

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