Imagine the economic havoc that could spring from the following nightmarish scenario: Cities are barricaded, preventing passengers from leaving disease-affected urban centers. Trucks are prohibited from engaging in intercity travel, blocking deliveries and normal commerce. Metropolitan health care systems barely function because of high levels of infection, illness and death among medical workers. Maritime and aviation crews are detained and tested for infection. Flights get postponed. Domestic life is interrupted. Students are told to stay home for weeks on end, disrupting families and education plans. Cafes, discos and entertainment venues close. Tourism drops to nothing. Then, with thousands quarantined, riots in multiple townships break out. This is something like the situation in China, home to two-thirds of the world's known SARS cases. While other nations appears to be beating severe acute respiratory syndrome -- Britain, the U.S. and Vietnam were recently removed from the World Health Organization's list of SARS-affected countries -- China's situation remains tenuous. On Monday, China said nine more people had died from SARS and that 160 more were infected with the virus. And the Chinese health statistics still might not properly convey the magnitude of the epidemic, since the government only recently acknowledged the severity of the situation and proclaimed it would begin dealing with the crisis openly.
Openness about the disease remains only one of many steps required to contain the outbreak. A larger fear is that China doesn't have adequate medical facilities and personnel to manage the disease should it spread to the vast rural hinterland. Cases in poorer, rural areas are turning up. But according to some reports, poor people bearing SARS symptoms are being turned away from hospitals, since it's suspected they won't be able to pay medical bills. Even if Beijing manages to quickly contain the epidemic, some economists say the disruption will slice at least 2 percentage points off the country's projected 8% economic growth rate this year. Both cotton and copper will likely also suffer.