What SARS could teach
Tuesday, May 6, 2003
Asian reactions
HONG KONG One would like to think that lessons are being learned in East Asia from SARS — about the dangers of reacting too little or too much, and about the importance of accurate information and perspective. But most governments have been acting according to type. Hong Kong was slow to act but has since demonstrated a level of technical proficiency in dealing with the crisis that should be expected from a well-organized city-state. It seems to have learned nothing at the political level, however. It is pressing ahead with broadly drafted legislation on subversion and state secrets that could well be used against those who reveal health data that the central government has hushed up — as happened with SARS. Hong Kong also announced a package of measures that are supposed to stimulate the economy but will mainly give tax breaks to middle- and upper-income earners. Meanwhile hospitals have been so starved of funds that newspapers have been appealing for donations to pay for proper protective gear for those caring for SARS patients. The amounts that have been set aside for cleaning up crowded housing estates are pitiful, and no action has been taken against building managements. Perish the thought of punishing the business-friendly government’s favorites, the property developers. In mainland China, the jury will be out for some time on whether the scandalous early cover-up on SARS will lead to wider acceptance of the benefits of honesty and praising, not jailing, whistle-blowers. Beijing’s conversion to openness about SARS was ultimately unavoidable. The cat was out of the bag. Lessons may have been learned at the central level, as the quick admission last week of the loss of a submarine may suggest. China has also had to eat humble pie and did so with a modicum of grace at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting to discuss SARS. But it is doubtful whether lessons will trickle down to the areas where they are most needed — the provincial authorities in whose domains disinformation usually begins — or whether the current crisis will lead to more resources for public health. Meanwhile the measures that have been taken to check SARS seem driven more by the mass-campaign mentality of the Mao era than by science. Singapore, typically, has combined science with the mass campaigns of a tightly governed state — and did not attempt cover-ups. But Singapore, with its tightly controlled media, is not likely to apply lessons about the benefits of free flows of information and debate to other issues. Taiwan seems to be having the opposite problem to the mainland. Although there have been few cases compared with Hong Kong and the mainland, a free and often alarmist media has helped drive a none-too-secure elected government into knee-jerk reaction such as excessive quarantine restrictions on visitors. Public panics about anyone from Hong Kong with a fever are routine. There is reason to believe that Taiwan’s official overreaction was also partly a deliberate attempt to raise the issue of its exclusion from the World Health Organization. The Philippines has had a mere four cases. Yet judging from local media reaction, which as usual has set the agenda of the government of President Gloria Arroyo, SARS has become the largest problem affecting this nation of 80 million. Meanwhile an upsurge in the daily toll from fighting in Mindanao to an average of at least 10 a day has been mostly consigned to the inside pages of local papers and almost ignored internationally. While President George W. Bush was playing fighter pilot and lauding U.S. achievements in the ‘‘war on terror’’ including in the Philippines, the ‘‘terrorist’’ Moro Islamic Liberation Front began a counteroffensive aimed at persuading Manila to return to the negotiations it has abandoned. Because SARS has failed to spread into the populations of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand — almost all cases have been through contacts with visitors to and from China — the virus may be sensitive to climate and environment, as some experts have suggested. Whether this is true or not, the failure of SARS to spread in tropical southeast Asia should also be making health headlines.

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