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SARS battle shifts to rural China

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

China has also moved against the erection of SARS-related road blocks by rural and urban residents.
China has also moved against the erection of SARS-related road blocks by rural and urban residents.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Beijing has shifted the focus of fighting the SARS epidemic to the countryside, where medical facilities are poor or next to non-existent.

In a State Council meeting on combating severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in rural areas, Premier Wen Jiabao said more attention and resources need to be paid to agrarian regions.

"[A] large-scale epidemic has not yet appeared in the countryside," the state media on Wednesday quoted Wen as saying. "Yet we need to pay high-level attention to [epidemic] prevention work in the villages."

Wen, who has staked his reputation as a "people's premier," said to contain the spread of SARS, city-based rural workers who have contracted the disease must be treated in urban hospitals -- and not sent home.

Moreover, SARS-stricken farmers need not pay for the expensive medical fees.

After the breakup of China's cradle-to-grave socialist health-care system in the 1990s, Chinese everywhere have to pay close to market prices for medical help.

The premier also mandated a "cadre responsibility system," whereby at least one top-level cadre in a county or district will be responsible for that area's anti-SARS work among peasants.

Since late March, the central government has committed 900 million yuan to finance SARS-related public health work in rural provinces in central and western China.

However, agrarian cadres in Beijing said medical facilities in the villages were rudimentary, and most rural areas could not afford the expensive equipment and medicine for treating the coronavirus-caused disease.

Tuesday's figures showed there were respectively 369, 251, and 113 SARS cases in the mainly rural provinces of Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Hebei provinces.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Public Security has issued a nation-wide instruction against the erection of SARS-related road blocks by rural and urban residents.

To prevent the inflow of people from the infected cities and provinces such as Beijing, Guangdong and Shanxi, many cities and counties have arbitrarily set up barriers on highways and railroads.

Such activities, however, have hampered efforts by the central government to transport much needed medical personnel and supplies to the villages.

Inspectors from the transport division of the police have been dispatched to numerous provinces and cities to remedy the situation.

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