BEIJING – Migrant worker You Shengye was making good money refurbishing apartments when his wife called and told him to hop on a train Wednesday and leave Beijing -- immediately.
"My family started seeing all the reports on TV about the SARS virus outbreak here and they got frightened and ordered me to come home," said You as he waited outside the Beijing train station.
The 41-year-old worker was part of a wave of people crowding into Beijing's airport and train stations on Wednesday, fleeing the Chinese capital as the government shut down schools and announced more SARS deaths in the city.
The mass migration came just days after the government fired two senior officials amid criticism that China had bungled the SARS crisis by not acting fast enough. Officials then cranked up an anti-SARS propaganda drive -- one of China's most aggressive and sweeping campaigns in years -- and public alarm about the illness soared.
So far, severe acute respiratory syndrome has infected more than 2,300 people in China -- more than in any other country -- and Beijing has reported nearly 600 cases and 35 deaths.
Fearing travelers and vacationers might help spread the disease, China has canceled the weeklong May Day holiday. And the nation's biggest city, Shanghai, is urging migrant workers not to return home. It also wants companies to stop hiring laborers from affected areas.
As You spoke through a thick gauze surgical mask, six workmates from his province of Anhui nodded and said they got similar orders to return home from worried relatives in their village, about 14 hours south of Beijing by train.
They enjoyed a sunny afternoon waiting in the railway station's plaza, packed with workers lugging duffel bags and rolled up quilts, and students carrying gym bags and backpacks. The station looked a lot like it did two months ago when millions of people were streaming home to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year -- the country's biggest holiday.
A 17-year-old high school student who would give only her surname, Shi, said she was also leaving Beijing because of SARS. She had a little fuchsia suitcase and a bag of shrimp-flavored instant noodles for the trip home to the southern province of Zhejiang.
Looking like an American teenager in her hooded blue sweat shirt and cargo pants, Shi said her boarding school announced Monday it was closing until May 11 because of SARS. She was glad to be leaving Beijing -- but not about the train ride.
"We're really afraid to ride this train home. We just don't know how dangerous SARS is. We don't know how clean the trains are," said the girl, who wore a red string around her neck threaded through a small foil packet of disinfectant she believed would ward off SARS germs.
At Beijing's airport, the departure area for domestic flights was crowded with mask-wearing travelers pushing luggage carts.
College student Chen Xuefeng, from the central city of Wuhan, was one of several people who said they believed the worst was yet to come.
"I've heard that the number of cases in the SARS outbreak is going to peak in Beijing next week and that we should get out of the city now," said the computer science major who recently served in the military and still wore a crew cut. "Maybe I'll come back in late May or early June."