Tue, Apr 01, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Half-measures for SARS will fail

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) appears to be spreading quickly. Residents on the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu are especially nervous because of the "small three links" with China. Fearing that the direct transportation links with China may undermine Taiwan's attempts to prevent the spread of the disease, the governments of these islands have suggested a temporary halt to the links. However, after a visit to the islands by Mainland Affairs Council Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the Cabinet yesterday decided to suspend the links on Matsu only.

This newspaper believes the decision, weighed down by political considerations, is unwise and worrisome for the health of Kinmen's residents.

SARS is nothing to be ashamed of and those infected should not be discriminated against. But for the sake of public health and security, potentially harmful contagious diseases should be controlled by mandatory quarantine and other measures when necessary. In this regard, temporary suspension of the "small three links" is no less necessary than the quarantine of infected patients.

China should not be blamed for being the origin of this previously unidentified form of atypical pneumonia, but China must take most of the responsibility for the rapid spread of the disease, first within China and then in other countries. Since the onset of the outbreak, the Chinese authorities have tried to hide the facts about it. Only after repeated exhortations from the World Health Organization (WHO) did China reluctantly start providing regular reports on the outbreak. The Chinese government still has not approved WHO requests to allow its personnel to investigate the situation in Guangdong Province. Except for some passing coverage in local English-language media, China's official media have not mentioned SARS even once. Apparently Chinese officialdom is still trying to pretend that everything is fine even as the outbreak continues to spread to neighboring countries.

Because China has not acted seriously to stop the spread of SARS, other countries must adopt measures to protect themselves, such as designating China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and so on as affected areas and warning their citizens not to go to those countries. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications requires departing passengers to fill out SARS prevention survey forms when they check in. Arriving passengers must sign health declarations before they are allowed entry. Given the gravity of the situation, rigorous prevention of SARS infections from China is necessary.

Taiwan could be seriously affected by the outbreak if the government fails to impose strict controls on the channels of infection and instead passively calls on the public not to go to China or naively urges China to provide more information on the epidemic. Not everyone who goes to China will get SARS, but the heavy passenger traffic across the Strait means SARS cases will continue to flow in from China. This is not a matter of individuals' freedom to travel, but of a major health crisis for all the people of Taiwan and a serious threat to its economy.

Even a temporary halt to the "small three links" can only block the channels of infection in Matsu. Taiwan will still be overshadowed by the SARS threat. Unless China cooperates with WHO experts and makes a serious attempt to stop the outbreak, Taiwan and other countries should seriously consider adopting stricter control and quarantine measures such as banning their citizens from going to China. A Chinese SARS conquest of the world is the last thing anyone wants to see.

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