Skip to comments.UK TIMES: China's Chernobyl
Posted on 04/20/2003 2:31:04 PM PDT by MadIvan
A belated response to the spread of Sars
The Chinese Communist Party has finally realised that secrecy can be fatal. The sudden demotion of two senior officials and the admission that the number of cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in Beijing alone is almost ten times the previously announced figure may well be a turning point in the country's history. Unfortunately, the delayed reaction may also mark a turning point in medical history. It is clear that the Chinese Government has lost control of the spread of Sars and that, by attempting to minimise embarrassment, it has maximised the chances that the virus will take hold internationally.
Hu Jintao, the new head of the Communist Party, deserves a modicum of credit for emphasising the importance of honesty in dealing with Sars, but his party has such a long and hardly honourable tradition of dishonesty that it is unsurprising that the medical bureaucracy thought it wise to fiddle the figures and to claim weeks ago that the problem was under control. With numerous cases identified in the west and far north of the country, the pattern of infection suggests that there are many thousands more cases than currently identified.
Beijing's profound mistakes hold lessons for governments elsewhere. The intensive treatment required by many Sars patients puts immense strain on the most advanced medical systems, as has been shown in Canada, where Toronto hospitals have been struggling to cope with about 300 probable and suspect cases.
It is sensible for the British Government to ensure that doctors around the country are alert to the symptoms and that one hospital (still unnamed) becomes the base for treatment of victims.
Quarantining of suspected patients is inevitable, but Sars is not an Asian disease, even though its origins appear to have been in southern China, and vigilant governments should emphasise that ethnicity is not a symptom.
While it is now necessary for health departments to prepare for the inevitability of more cases, the extent of the problem needs to be put into context. In Canada, as of yesterday evening, 14 people had died from the virus the number of road fatalities in an average year in that country is around 3,000. Mad cow disease never reached the epidemic proportions predicted by scientists, and malaria remains a far more potent killer than Sars. What is distinctive and disturbing about the virus is that we are watching its development unfold in real time. Modern communications have both accelerated the spread of Sars and expedited the search for efficacious treatments.
China, now, has a particularly heavy responsibility to share its findings and experiences with the rest of the world. Beijing's belated recognition of the threat is behind the sensible decision to curtail the annual May holiday during which tens of millions of Chinese would have criss-crossed the country, visiting families and, perhaps, multiplying the spread of the virus many times over.
The cover-up has been so much a part of the bureaucratic response to crises that ordinary Chinese officials have not known how to respond to the unprecedented pressure created by Sars. Rumours have spread around the country far more virulently than the disease itself and the internet has been a more fruitful source than the People's Daily. A parochial Communist Party must understand that the benefits of international co-operation, whether tourism or trade, are complemented by responsibilities. If Hu Jintao's new-found emphasis on honesty and transparency is characteristic of his rule, then China will be a better place for the Chinese and a more constructive member of the international community. In that sense, Sars could be China's Chernobyl.