• China’s bird flu response shows new level of openness
     | April 12,2013

    A pigeon breeder cares for pigeons in cages on a rooftop in Shanghai, China.

    SHANGHAI — After a new and lethal strain of bird flu emerged in Shanghai two weeks ago, the government of China’s bustling financial capital responded with live updates on a Twitter-like microblog. It’s a starkly different approach than a decade ago, when Chinese officials silenced reporting as a deadly pneumonia later known as SARS killed dozens in the south.

    The contrast shows a new, though still evolving, openness in China that was learned from the SARS debacle, which devastated the government’s credibility at home and abroad. It also reflects the demands of a more prosperous and educated citizenry for information and its use of social media to get it.

    “Publicize information to prevent ‘bird flu panic’,” read a headline of a recent front-page commentary in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper, that urged government departments to release information quickly about an outbreak that has killed nine and sickened 26 others.

    Though some microbloggers and media are questioning why it took a couple of weeks after the first deaths for authorities to announce the new strain of bird flu, international health experts have broadly praised China’s response. The government has said that it takes time for scientists to identify the virus and that such a finding had to be put through several layers of verification before being announced.

    The new openness is thanks in part to people like Li Tiantian, founder of Dingxiangyuan, an online medical network popular with Chinese health care workers. His microblog is among a number of sites that have been tracking the government’s response to the new bird flu. “It’s evident that the strength of social media can pressure the government to be more open, more transparent,” he said from his base in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

    Li remembers a time 10 years ago when state media were the public’s only sources of information. As rumors swirled that a mysterious pneumonia was killing people in Beijing, Li, then a postgraduate student, dismissed the fears as overblown because he saw footage on state television of seemingly carefree foreign tourists arriving in the country’s capital.

    It took months for Chinese authorities to start acknowledging the true scale of SARS — but by then it was too late to stop it from spreading worldwide and killing hundreds.

    SARS is much deadlier than bird flu, with an ability to spread among people that the bird flu virus generally lacks.

    Since China reported the first human infections of the new bird flu virus, known as H7N9, on March 31, authorities have had to compete with the online rumor mill. They have also responded to demands spread through microblogs.

    After some urged an investigation into a potential link to thousands of pig carcasses found floating in a river, agricultural officials said they tested pig carcass samples and did not find any bird viruses. When others said authorities should help pay the medical bills of those affected, health officials said hospitals were not allowed to turn away patients who could not afford treatment.

    Shanghai is also on guard against bird flu in the real world: Signs in apartment compounds warn residents to watch out for the high fevers, breathing difficulties and other symptoms of the virus. At the Ruijin Hospital in the city’s tree-lined, former French Concession area, patients with high fevers and other flu-like symptoms are handed disposable thermometers and masks and ushered in through separate entrances.

    Breeders of homing pigeons have been prevented from letting their birds fly freely. The sale of live fowl has been suspended, and cages in a wholesale market once stuffed with clucking chickens are now empty save for the rats that roam inside them.

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