© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2003
BEIJING -- In the most significant political shakeup in more than a decade, the mayor of Beijing and the minister of health were removed from their Communist Party posts Sunday for failing to deal with the spread of SARS in China.
Health officials also conceded they had mismanaged the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, an unprecedented admission by the Communist Party. The government increased the number of confirmed SARS cases in the capital from 37 to 346, a tacit acknowledgment that it had previously lied about the toll.
The government also canceled the annual one-week vacation that begins May 1. The Ministry of Education effectively confined hundreds of thousands of students in the capital to their campuses to limit the infection rate.
The moves constituted a political earthquake for the Chinese Communist Party, which has rarely acknowledged mistakes.
But the official New China News Agency reported that the mayor of Beijing, Meng Xuenong, and the minister of health, Zhang Wenkang, had been ousted from their party posts, the first step in their dismissal from their government jobs.
The cancellation of the May Day vacation, despite the economic cost, was a sign of the government's new resolve to combat the disease. International health experts have warned that the mass movement of holiday travelers -- about 70-million last year -- could spread SARS nationwide.
Meanwhile, the death toll continued to climb in other countries. In Hong Kong, health officials announced seven new deaths, for a total of 88, and said they were re-evaluating the drug treatment for SARS patients.
In Canada, a 99-year-old man became the nation's 14th death from SARS. The country's largest trauma unit was closed to new patients after four staff members began showing symptoms.