2003 April 19 Saturday
How China Hides SARS Cases From World Health Organization

Before WHO investigators came to some hospitals the SARS patients were put in ambulances and driven around Beijing for hours with nurses in the ambulances forced into close proximity with the patients. In other cases they moved the patients to hotels and other buildings.

A doctor at the No. 309 Hospital also confirmed the source's story. "We moved 46 of our SARS patients to the Zihuachun hotel on Tuesday," he said, "There were about 10 SARS patients in the ward when the WHO team visited. The hotel is being disinfected now. I don't think it will open again. It was going to be renovated anyway."

One of the most important questions about SARS in China is whether the government's suppression of the truth will cause SARS to spread so widely in China that it will destabilize the country.

Numerous reports from local doctors over the past week suggest that the nation's health-care system remains hostage to a government that values power and public order before human lives. "You foreigners value each person's life more than we do because you have fewer people in your countries," says a Shanghai-based respiratory specialist, who sits on an advisory committee dealing with epidemic diseases. "Our primary concern is social stability, and if a few people's deaths are kept secret, it's worth it to keep things stable." The question is: Just how many deaths can be kept secret before the health epidemic itself becomes a threat to social stability?

The other interesting question from a political standpoint has to do with the scenario in which SARS spreads and becomes pandemic throughout much of the world. That outcome will clearly be the fault of the Chinese government. Death tolls could mounts into the hundreds of thousands worldwide and perhaps even larger. The economic impact could become large enough to throw the whole world into a prolonged recession. The Chinese government's irresponsible reaction to SARS will surely become much more widely known than it is now.

What will become of world opinion toward China? For one thing, a lot more people will form opinions about China who do not now think much about it. While many people throughout the world have strong and compex opinions about the US the same is not the case with attitudes toward China. People's first opinions of China will be unfavorable.

Perhaps one of the biggest long term political effects of the SARS crisis is that it provides a dramatic example of the value of open societies. The Chinese model of economic development is presented as an argument that it is okay to have an authoritarian government if such a government can deliver fast economic growth and rising living standards. But the Chinese government handling of SARS is a poster case for what is wrong with closed societies which lack a free press and governments unaccountable to electorates. This message is already being driven home in Western reports and notably in the Taiwanese press (lesson to people of Taiwan: you are better off keeping your independence from the mainland). But as SARS spreads more widely the message that the Chinese government covered up and worsened the crisis will spread more widely as well. This will undermine the appeal of the Chinese model of governance.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 19 11:23 AM  Culture Open Versus Closed Societies


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