BEIJING – China's propaganda machine is promoting new official heroes -- the "angels in white," medical workers who are fighting, and sometimes dying, to stop SARS (search).
Their efforts are getting the kind of front-page newspaper coverage usually reserved for Chinese leaders. A doctor who died after contracting the virus on the job was declared a revolutionary martyr, while others are being awarded medals.
"They are rescuing the dying and treating the sick in disregard for their personal safety," said Zhou Liangluo, administrator of a district of hard-hit Beijing (search). "There have been a lot of heroic deeds that can move us to tears."
The campaign is aimed at winning public support -- or at least cooperation -- for increasingly drastic Chinese steps to stop a disease the Health Ministry (search) said had killed 219 people and infected 4,560 as of Wednesday.
It comes as China tries to block severe acute respiratory syndrome, so far mostly an urban disease, from spreading to the countryside, where the majority of its 1.3 billion people live amid a shortage of doctors and hospitals.
On Thursday, state media reported that China's Cabinet announced a series of measures aimed at minimizing the economic damage.
The Cabinet issued orders to local authorities to make sure that farm harvests are carried out and that foreign investment and exports increase. The media said that local officials were also told to adopt policies to help aviation, tourism and other businesses badly damaged by SARS.
Investigators from the World Health Organization on Thursday are due to go to Hebei, a province bordering Beijing. While the surge in cases in the Chinese capital appears to have leveled off, WHO says numbers in densely populated Hebei, which has reported 134 cases and six deaths, have risen sharply.
Premier Wen Jiabao, in a speech reprinted Wednesday in state newspapers, promised urgent help for the countryside, where he said the medical system is "technologically weak" and the disease-reporting system inadequate.
The government hopes to win not just sympathy but support for anti-SARS efforts that have disrupted travel and business and left thousands of people quarantined.
In at least three towns in the countryside, violent protests have erupted among villagers worried about plans to house SARS patients or possible cases near them.
On state television, video montages set to rousing music show hospital workers shrouded in white anti-infection suits tending patients in isolation wards. A Beijing film company is preparing to make a movie about the anti-SARS effort, due for release on China's National Day on Oct. 1.
The campaign's tone harks back to the 1950s and '60s, with such slogans as "The 10,000 Masses, One Heart" straight from the era of communist founder Mao Zedong. President Hu Jintao has invoked the ruling party's guerrilla past, calling for a "people's war" against the disease.
But the self-sacrifice of its subjects is undeniable. Nationwide, 20 percent of those infected are medical workers who fell ill while treating others. In Beijing, SARS wards are so overburdened that the government has summoned 1,200 military doctors and nurses from outside the capital to help.
After Dr. Deng Lianxian in April became China's first reported death among medical workers, the Communist Party declared the physician in the southern city of Guangzhou a revolutionary martyr.
The Health Ministry named Deng and two others "Guardians of the People's Health."
"Maybe they regard us as heroes, but I believe I was just doing my duty," said Dr. Tang Ziren, who is treating SARS patients at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing.
Others reject the publicity as misguided at a time when fatigued hospital staffs are running short of surgical masks and other protective supplies.
"The propaganda is a lot of baloney. They call us all 'angels in white' and 'warriors in white,' but they aren't doing much to ensure our well being," said one doctor, who was smoking a cigarette outside a hurriedly built new SARS hospital north of Beijing. He wouldn't give his name.
Added a colleague, who also wouldn't give his name: "What the media ought to be doing is writing about the shortage of protective clothes and other materials in the hospitals and the immense psychological pressure that we're all under."