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Beijing schools stay shut

Beijing, May 4 (Reuters): China ordered schools in Beijing to stay closed for two more weeks to stem the spread of the SARS virus, which has killed 100 and infected 1,803 in the capital, officials said today.

Health officials say Beijing’s SARS outbreak has begun to peak after about 100 new cases a day since late April which sparked widespread fear and some panic buying in the city.

Beijing had 114 new infections and five deaths from Friday to Saturday. That dropped to 69 new cases and four deaths today, the health ministry said.

Elementary and primary schools in the city of 14 million, currently the hardest-hit place by SARS in the world, had been due to reopen on May 8 after a two-week suspension.

“The two-week extension is out of consideration of the health of 1.37 million students at primary and elementary schools,” China Central Television quoted Li Guanzheng, deputy director of Beijing Municipal Education Commission, as saying. Beijing parents greeted the news with some relief.

“We would be very worried if classes resumed as cases in Beijing are still high,” said Fang Dan, whose seven-year-old son has stayed home from his elementary school classes. “My mother has to take him to school by bus every day and the chance of catching the disease is quite high,” Fang said.

After covering up the extent of the disease for weeks, China finally began reporting more honest figures on April 20. The Beijing mayor and national health minister were sacked and the May 1 holidays cut short.

SARS has killed 197 people in China, infected 4,125 and spread to 26 of 30 Chinese provinces, major cities and regions since emerging in the southern province of Guangdong in November. Officials launched large-scale awareness campaigns, began mass disinfection of buses, trains and airplanes, placed thousands in quarantine and urged people to stay close to home for the holidays, which wind up on Monday.

Some children were enjoying their break without homework.

“I am happy to stay at home, I have more time for myself,” said Yang Rui, a 14 year-old student, who has spent most of his break watching television.

“My parents are very worried, I am not. I would dare to go out and play, but my parents won’t allow me to go downstairs.”

Much of Beijing has spent the holidays cooped up at home. Tourist sites from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City to the Great Wall, normally packed with visitors, are nearly deserted.

“I feel like the emperor because nobody else is here,” said restaurant owner Cai Yongliang atop a near vacant section of the Great Wall, an hour’s drive out of the city.

“Being here I have forgotten about SARS. In the city, seeing ambulances, police cars, face masks and emergency response vehicles I think about SARS,” Cai said.

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