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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Public takes Kansai airport to task over lax response to SARS scare


Staff writer

OSAKA -- People here reacted with shock and anger to reports Tuesday that Kansai International Airport did not respond immediately to a notice that a visiting Taiwanese doctor had developed symptoms of SARS.

News photo
Workers disinfect a ticket gate at JR Osaka Station, where a SARS-infected Taiwanese doctor may have visited during a recent tour.

"The quarantine office at Kansai airport failed utterly in it's mission to protect the public," said 54-year-old Yasushi Kamimura, a salaried worker in Osaka's Umeda district.

Just as important, several residents said, was the question of why the airport authority waited so long to respond to the SARS crisis. The airport only began detailed questioning of visitors from SARS-affected areas on Sunday.

"We've known that SARS has been a major problem for nearly two months," said Yoshimi Iwamoto, a 43-year-old part-time worker, also in Umeda. "Yet all of this time, people from afflicted areas were going in and out of the Kansai airport with no special questioning by the quarantine office. This points to gross negligence on the part of airport officials."

Other Osaka residents said they were convinced the worst is yet to come and expressed little surprise at the way the central government has handled the issue.

"In 1996, you had the outbreak of E. coli bacteria in Sakai, which killed a number of schoolchildren," said Seiji Nakatani, who works in the city's Kitahama district. "As with SARS, the central government failed at the time to take immediate action. So it's hardly surprising that there are communications problems over SARS."

In the meantime, Taiwanese and Chinese residents in Osaka expressed fears that a SARS epidemic could lead to discrimination by Osaka businesses and individuals.

Some area hotels announced they are not taking reservations from Taiwan and China until more information becomes available.

The Hotel Kintetsu Universal City, located near the Universal Studios Japan theme park, said it has stopped accepting reservations for the time being. Reservations from Taiwanese guests are also being refused at the New Otani hotel near Osaka Castle Park.

"Concerns about the spread of SARS by Taiwanese or Chinese visitors are legitimate, and precautions should be taken," said Midori Ito, who is originally from Taiwan and operates a telephone hotline for Taiwanese and Chinese residents in the Kansai region. "But you have to be careful, because these concerns could lead to panic and then to discrimination if the government fails to provide people accurate and timely information."



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