Police sentenced the man responsible for spreading the rumor of a new SARS outbreak in northern China during the previous week to two years of “re-education through labor”.
The offender, surnamed Liu, is a website administrator who hoped the rumors would boost traffic to his webpage, according to the Xinshi District Police Security Bureau. On February 19, reports surfaced claiming that newly recruited soldiers infected with SARS were admitted to the military 252 Hospital in Baoding City, Heibei Province. Additionally, bloggers alleged that the hospital apparently confirmed 50 cases and one death due to SARS, and hundreds of people were being treated in isolation wards.
However, both the hospital and the Baoding City health administration denied any reports of a SARS outbreak. The Chinese Ministry of Health later released a statement that dismissed SARS, swine flu, and avian flu as the responsible diseases. Patients being treated for minor symptoms, such as sore throat, fever, and cough, were in fact suffering from an infection by adenovirus type 55. A source from the Institute for Disease Prevention and Control of the People's Liberation Army claims that “there are no critical cases or deaths” and that all infections are under control.
The rumors initially caused concern among Internet users, as the Chinese government has a history of covering up infectious disease outbreaks. When SARS was first detected in November of 2002 in Guangdong Province, the Ministry of Health failed to immediately report the discovery to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Under the government of the People’s Republic of China, the press was discouraged from publishing information on the mysterious respiratory illness primarily affecting health care workers to preserve the public’s confidence and contain widespread panic.
The extent of the SARS outbreak, then “atypical pneumonia”, was first publicized in February of the following year when 305 cases and five deaths were reported to the WHO. However, even these numbers did not fully encompass the disease burden in China. After receiving much international criticism, the Chinese government was forced to apologize for the cover up and promised full disclosure in future infectious disease outbreaks.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a very serious form of pneumonia with a case fatality rate between 9 and 12 percent. However, approximately 50 percent of cases in people of 65 and older end in death.
SARS is spread by infected droplets in the air, usually from coughing or sneezing. The virus can survive outside the body, on hands, tissues, and other surfaces for up to nine hours. Although most SARS cases were spread through close contact with an infected patient, the possibility of airborne transmission makes the disease a serious pandemic threat.
Symptoms of SARS mirror pneumonia: cough, fever, shaking chills, and shortness of breath. In some patients, lung symptoms deteriorate progressively within the second week of illness, even after the fever has abated.
It is essential that SARS patients remain isolated in the hospital. Additionally, health care workers should use personal protective equipment when handing patients infected with SARS. Last, proper hand hygiene is key in impeding the spread of SARS, particularly in a health care setting.
Treatment of SARS may include antibiotics to treat pneumonia-causing bacteria, certain antiviral medications, oxygen and breathing support or chest therapy, and steroids to reduce swilling in the lungs.
Re-education through Labor
Re-education through labor (aodong jiaoyang or laojiao for short) was first established in China in the 1950s to detain counterrevolutionaries, or those who opposed the communist party. More recently, offenders primarily include petty thieves, prostitutes, and drug users, as well as some political and religious dissidents.
This system allows the police to bypass the judicial system and to arrest and sentence offenders of these minor crimes to detention in a labor camp for up to four years. Various human rights groups, as well as the UN, have called for an end to this practice, because it violates citizens’ civil liberties in a number of ways. Offenders have no right to a trial or legal counsel, and although they can challenge their sentence by appealing to the People’s court, evidence suggests that this action is actually considered uncooperative and may therefore extend the prison sentence.
In theory, offenders are paid for their work, are entitled to eight hours of sleep per night, and are not expected to work more than six hours per day. However, reports from prisoners have surfaced that paint an entirely different picture of China’s re-education program.
Prisoners may be forced to work up to 14 hours a day in hazardous working conditions, such as in mines or brick factories. Additionally, prisoners may be subjected to beatings and other tortures, although corporeal punishment is strictly forbidden. In an account published by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), one detainee recounts his low salary, “despite the heavy labor, everyone was compensated two cents every day, which means RMB 6 [USD 0.88] a month,” most of which paid for basic necessities not offered by the camps.
On the other hand, laojiao has been very effective in managing repetitive illicit drug users. In fact, some camps are constructed specifically for drug users who have failed the short-term police-run compulsory drug treatment program. Laojiao’s lengthy incarceration system helps eliminate users’ dependency on drugs, and is therefore considered the best solution.