China erects new SARS hospital in one week

Time of article published Apr 29, 2003

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By John Ruwitch

Xiaotangshan, China - Six days and six nights. That's all the time construction crews had to erect a 1 000-bed Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) isolation hospital on a field in the tiny Chinese township of Xiaotangshan, north-east of Beijing.

"We were given the order on the night of April 24 and told the patients would move in on April 30," said an official.

On Tuesday, the day before patients were due to be wheeled in, the complex - roughly the size of a soccer stadium - was teeming with an army of workers scrambling to put the finishing touches on the buildings and grounds.

The muddy construction site was a reminder of what the ruling Communist Party, criticised for its lack of initial transparency in handling the SARS outbreak, can accomplish when it is focused.

China has been hardest hit by the outbreak of SARS, which has killed more than 350 people and infected 5 500 across the world since first appearing in China's southern Guangdong province in November.

Military doctors and nurses, part of a contingent of 1 200 ordered to Beijing to help battle an unrelenting outbreak of the flu-like virus, arrived for duty at Xiaotangshan, said the website of the party mouthpiece People's Daily.

Much of the work was finished or appeared near completion.

"We put down this road in three days and three nights, no stopping," said a haggard-looking foreman ambling down the tarmac beside the hospital as a worker dusted off the new path.

"I haven't slept for three nights. They said it had to get done, so what can you do?" he said before gathering his "troops" for one of their two daily temperature checks to make sure they did not have a fever, the tell-tale SARS symptom.

Inside the complex, which looks more like an army barracks than a hospital, it appeared that much still needed to be done to meet the deadline.

Electricians dragged heavy cables along the road to hang on new concrete poles to power the hospital.

Hundreds of bricklayers worked on a 3,5m wall surrounding the facility that will help keep contagious patients in. Alarms were already mounted along finished sections of the wall. Surveillance cameras had been installed.

Thousands of other workers in yellow hard hats used power saws to cut doors out of the corrugated tin and styrofoam pre-fab walls. There were no beds in the small, barren rooms with tiny squat bathrooms attached.

Each room had an air conditioner and a hatch for food and medicine to be inserted without sending anyone in.

Cement mixers and other trucks were everywhere.

One was stacked with new televisions for the sick rooms. Another carried corpse refrigerators for the morgue, a creepy reminder that SARS has claimed nearly half its victims in China.

The disease has spread fear and panic in its wake in China. On Sunday, residents of a township south-east of Beijing rioted after learning of a plan to set up a SARS quarantine centre in an abandoned school, officials said on Tuesday.

But residents in Xiaotangshan seemed to be taking matters more in their stride. They manned makeshift disinfectant stations spraying every car coming in with pumps carried in backpacks.

Pedestrians and cyclists were made to pass over burlap sacks wet with disinfectant.

"The most dangerous place is also the safest place," said Ou Liping, who operates a tiny wholesale food shop not far from the new facility.

"I'm sure the construction is good. And anyway, you have to trust your own government, right?" she said.

Down the road, however, a middle-aged taxi driver who declined to give his name raised sharper questions.

"What about pollution?" he said. "What if there's a leak in the sewer coming out of there?"

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