“The TAR [Tibetan Autonomous Region] and Qinghai, traditionally known as the Amdo region of Tibet, are believed to be the two last provinces of China where no cases of SARS are known, which has gained Tibet the reputation in mainland China of being a sanctuary from the disease. The Chinese authorities reassuringly claim that the low concentration of oxygen and high level of UV radiation, both contingent upon the altitude of the Tibetan plateau, are likely to prevent the spread of the virus.
Experts though, warn that the notoriously poor hygienic conditions prevailing in the region may outweigh these natural obstacles, once a few cases of the infection have reached the plateau.
Since Sunday 27 April all international flights into and out of the TAR have been stopped. The last flights from Kathmandu reportedly reached Lhasa International Airport in Gonkar on Saturday 26 April. All border-crossing points were also completely sealed off during the course of Saturday. Official communiques explained these measures as necessary to prevent a spread of the
virus from China into Nepal. The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu stopped delivering visas for Tibet on Thursday evening, though a few people were allowed to pick up their visas on Friday. Trucks carrying supplies into the TAR are reportedly being stopped at the province’s border. Goods like rice and other products, including foods that are not produced in the TAR and are normally transported by road from mainland China, are not reaching Lhasa anymore.
The Chengdu-Lhasa route is the most frequented air route between the mainland and the Tibetan plateau. The local authorities reacted by imposing a quarantine of 10 days on all passengers arriving from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province – SARS is believed to have an incubation period of less than ten days. However, since there are no quarantine facilities in the TAR, arriving passengers are currently isolated in hotel rooms in Lhasa.
It is not known whether such quarantine measures are also being imposed on passengers arriving from other destinations, but reports indicate that most inland flights might be cancelled from tomorrow (30 April).
Notwithstanding official communiques identifying the danger of SARS as coming from outside the TAR, strong travel restrictions have been imposed within the province itself, nurturing perceptions that the authorities might fear panic and unrest in this potentially tense situation, as much as the spread of the
disease. Roadblocks have been installed along the major roads in the TAR, preventing the flow of goods and people. It is, for instance, currently impossible to reach Lhasa from the eastern prefecture city of Chamdo.
In Lhasa no drastic coercive measures seem to have been imposed on the population so far. Radio, posters and television features exhort people to practice sports in order to stay healthy. They also advise against visits to public places like restaurants and discourage private gatherings. Families celebrating marriage
parties were advised by neighbourhood authorities not to invite relatives living in another part of the town. The fear of a coming shortage of consumer goods has led Lhasa dwellers to start hoarding these products.
In particular tourism, which the authorities intend to make the ‘staple industry’ of the TAR as well as of most parts of Tibet, is likely to experience a very serious setback this year. Furthermore manufacturing and trade activities are likely to collapse soon, depending as they do on the continuous supply of goods and machines from, and markets in, mainland China. The current situation illustrates the weakness and vulnerability of the much-publicised economic growth in the TAR with its subordinate position to mainland China. Instead of developing a reasonably diversified economic autonomy in the TAR, the model of development currently practiced relies totally on transportation arteries from mainland China, which have now turned into potential infection channels. The current severing of the TAR’s physical links to China may asphyxiate economic growth and thus potentially alienate the relatively prosperous urban elite, on which Beijing’s plans for political ‘stability’ rely.”
From the newsletter of the Tibet Information Network.