Another SARS Update Live from Beijing

I am packing up my stuff and preparing to leave Beijing so I can’t spend a lot of time writing. I wanted to clarify my post yesterday about universities closing. I am singing in an international chorus here, and one of the singers is a professor at Peking University (Beijing Daxue, or “Bei-Da”). He told me that rumors were flying last week about two professors dying of SARS and 20 students being infected as well. In truth, he said, he knew of one professor for sure who died of SARS and that he could say with a good amount of confidence that at least 10 students were infected. All classes have been cancelled. I realize this is “hearsay,” but you have to understand that in Beijing, which until a few days ago was insisting there were a total of only 27 SARS cases in the city, hearsay is all we have. (I won’t repeat rumors here until I think my source is a good one.) This same professor said that earlier this week it was announced to the students that they must be ready at any time to leave the school and go home. Two students of Bei-Da who are in the same chorus confirmed this.

Last night, a German businessman I know from work called and told me he came to Beijing all the way from Yunnan to give a lecture at a local university and that, to his shock, “the university is closed.” He said cities outside of Beijing have no idea how seriously SARS is affecting the nation’s capital. He said he was leaving right away for Yunnan, where there have been few if any cases of SARS reported.

These pieces of anecdotal evidence were the main reasons I posted that Beijing was “going crazy.” That, and the frenzied and very visible efforts to disinfect every surface in the city. I still think there’s a lot of over-reaction that could have been avoided had the government been forthright from the very beginning. (That will be the day.) Now, after the damage has been done, after weeks of telling us the disease was under control and tourism was rising, the central government is doing a complete about-face and talking nonstop about the “grave threat” of SARS and what it’s doing about it, threatening “severe punishment” to any officials caught covering up cases of SARS. (All I have to say is, Physician, heal thyself.)

This is a defining moment for China and it will be interesting to see where it all ends. All of that work over all of those years, all that propaganda about the new China, the more open society — so much of it was built on sand, and the SARS tidal wave washed it away overnight. As someone who gives crisis management training to executives, I will forever refer to this as a classic case study in exactly what not to do in a crisis. No. 1 rule is acknowledge it, set up a system for sharing information, make yourself available and tell the truth. If you do not, it will catch up with you, always. The “new leadership” (which is as fossilized and plutocratic as those before them) gets an F minus in crisis management and, in the eyes of the world, will be sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap for a very long time to come.
[Edited, 4/20]

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[…] in early April a chorus member, a professor at Peking University, told me he’d heard that two of his fellow professors had died of SARS and a number of students were infected. Another chorus member, a well-known journalist, said there was a massive cover-up by the […]

January 15, 2013 @ 7:19 am | Pingback

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