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China's Iron Lady to tackle SARS

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

Chinese security guards take no chances with SARS.
Chinese security guards take no chances with SARS.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Beijing is set to appoint "Iron Lady" Wu Yi to head the Health Ministry as a signal to the global community that China is serious about tackling the pneumonia epidemic.

Orders have also been given to military hospitals to ensure their cooperation with civilian departments in fully disclosing figures related to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Sources close to the health ministry in Beijing said the authorities would soon name Vice-Premier Wu, 65, as Minister of Health.

Former health minister Zhang Wenkang, one of the cadres most responsible for covering up the SARS outbreak, was unceremoniously sacked last Sunday.

The sources said the leadership of President Hu Jintao believed Wu would have the needed credibility with both Chinese and Westerners to do the job well.

While she has had no exposure to the health portfolio, Wu is highly respected for her role in cracking smuggling and corruption cases -- and in guiding China's arduous application process to join the World Trade Organization.

Moreover, given that the fight against SARS involves close cooperation between different civilian and military departments, Wu, also a member of the Communist party Politburo, will have enough clout and seniority to ram orders through the bureaucracy.

On Tuesday, the Communist party and central government issued new guidelines to ensure "unified leadership" over anti-SARS policies and measures.

For example, party and government officials in each province or city are to set up a Leading Group to Fight the SARS Epidemic, and all other units, including military and commercial departments in the district, must obey instructions from this group.

In the past few months, the nearly 200 hospitals under the People's Liberation Army have been reluctant to divulge SARS-related information to civilian departments.

The state media on Wednesday also carried a new regulation which stated officials guilty of gross incompetence in containing SARS could be penalized with jail terms of up to ten years.

Cadres of all levels have been urged to deploy all medical resources to take in SARS patients and to ensure that the disease does not spread to their relatives or doctors and nurses.

The official press has cited examples of hospitals particularly in the interior provinces which have turned away patients who cannot pay the several thousand yuan deposits needed for admission to medical facilities.

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