| A Pakistani doctor (left) questions a passenger on the SARS disease at Karachi airport on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Beijing, April 23 (Reuters): The World Health Organisation warned against travel to the Chinese capital and Canada’s main city today as Beijing authorities ordered schools closed to try halt the spread of the SARS virus.
Beijing is the hardest hit place in China where SARS is believed to have originated. The country has the world’s highest death toll from SARS from the virus with 106 fatalities.
Fear about the economic impact was growing with leading investment bank JP Morgan Chase predicting China’s economy, one of the fastest growing in the world, was likely to shrink this quarter.
The WHO recommended postponement of non-essential travel to the Chinese capital, Shanxi province to the southwest and the Canadian city of Toronto for at least three weeks, twice the maximum incubation period.
In Canada, the only country outside Asia where people have died from the disease, the death toll rose to 15. There are now 324 probable or suspected cases, most of them in Toronto.
Hong Kong, which also reported more deaths and infections, announced a $1.5 billion package to help businesses reeling from the impact of the disease. The city has now had 105 SARS deaths.
In Singapore, where there have been 189 infections and up to 17 deaths, alarm was growing over an outbreak among vendors at the city-state’s largest vegetable market and the government threatened to jail people violating quarantine.
The illness, whose symptoms include high fever, a dry cough and difficulty in breathing, has killed more than 250 people around the world. Most patients survive, but health officials say the mortality rate has risen from 4 per cent to 5.9 per cent and there is no known cure.
China has more than half of the world’s more than 4,200 SARS cases and panic has begun surfacing after the government allowed state media to report fully on the disease.
Beijing, a city of 14 million people, has reported almost 700 cases and 35 deaths.
Until last week, officials had admitted to only 37 infections in the city. Beijing authorities ordered all primary and secondary schools closed for two weeks from tomorrow, a move that will affect an estimated 1.7 million children.
Armies of disinfection squads sprayed down airports and planes and the government has also shortened its Golden Week holiday in early May to discourage travel and prevent the spread of SARS. But that will mean far less spending during one of the country’s most popular vacation times.
Investment bank JP Morgan Chase said the shorter holiday could hit China's growth significantly.
In Beijing, travellers lugging suitcases clogged the square in front of the main railway station in hopes of getting on one of the dozens of train going to the north, south and west — anywhere out of the crowded city.
People wearing white cotton masks waited for hours outside rather than linger in crowded waiting rooms.
“I’m going home because I’m scared of getting sick,” said migrant worker Deng Pao after managing to buy a ticket to his home province of Henan. “I’ve been in Beijing for two months and had a good job, but it’s not worth it.”