BEIJING – China (search) threatened to execute anyone who causes death or injury by deliberately spreading SARS (search), as officials on Thursday promised more doctors, hospitals and money to fight the flu-like virus in rural areas.
The warning by China's Supreme Court, reported by the official Xinhua News Agency (search), appeared to be an effort to force compliance with quarantines and other restrictions. It cited existing laws, many of which include a possible death penalty for even nonviolent offenses, though it often isn't imposed.
The announcement came as Chinese officials tried to keep severe acute respiratory syndrome from spreading to the countryside, home to many of China's 1.3 billion people.
Rural areas account for only a fraction of China's more than 5,100 SARS cases, said officials from the health and finance ministries. But they called for stepped up efforts to shield rural villages, especially by keeping migrant workers from carrying the virus in from cities.
"We haven't seen a major spread into the countryside, but we can't tell whether that might change in the future," Qi Xiaoqiu, director of the Heath Ministry's Department of Disease Control, said at a news conference.
SARS has killed 271 people on China's mainland.
The Supreme Court warning says people who violate quarantines and spread the virus can be imprisoned for up to seven years, Xinhua said. It said those who cause death or serious injury by "deliberately spreading" the virus can be sentenced to prison terms of 10 years to life or might be executed.
Chinese authorities frequently threaten harsh punishments, including possible execution, during emergencies.
Most of China's 100 million migrant workers have remained at their city jobs, and health officials are monitoring 8 million migrants who have returned to their hometowns, the officials said.
Some areas are quarantining returning migrants, while teams are being organized to bring in crops so that workers don't have to return to help with the harvest, they said.
In hopes of keeping migrants from returning home, urban employers have been told not to fire them, said Liu Jian, vice minister of agriculture. He said the government would offer tax breaks and other financial aid to keep them employed despite a sharp dropoff in business for many urban companies.
Many rural villages also have set up roadblocks to keep away outsiders.
Such measures have helped to curb the spread of SARS but "must not be allowed to disrupt social and economic order," Liu said.
Liu acknowledged that rural residents in some areas have attacked clinics and other buildings that they thought might house SARS patients. He said that was due in part to the failure by authorities to educate the public about anti-SARS measures.
SARS has focused attention on the decrepit state of China's rural health care system, which has far fewer doctors and hospitals than cities.
Nationwide, health care spending has failed to keep pace with economic growth for the last 20 years. Most Chinese have no health insurance or government coverage.
The government has promised $240 million in emergency aid to rural health care.
Liu and the other officials said much of it would go toward building and expanding rural clinics. They said medical workers would be sent from China's military and big cities to help staff them.
Elsewhere, Taiwan reported 26 new SARS cases -- its biggest one-day jump -- as the disease spread further into the southern part of the island, sickening 15 staff at one leading hospital and forcing officials to close its emergency ward.
In Singapore, where 28 people have died of SARS, the Health Ministry said about three dozen patients and health care workers from the island's Institute of Mental Health were hospitalized after showing symptoms of SARS, which include high fever, aches, coughing and shortness of breath.
On Wednesday, the U.N. health agency lifted Canada from its list of affected areas, and Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement said the decision was "an absolute vindication of our public health officials, our nurses, doctors, other emergency workers."
Canada suffered 24 deaths, all of them in Toronto, before containing the disease.