Tue, May 06, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Cooperation is in the details

The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak has not only had an impact on the national health care system, but has also triggered panic among many people. The fears provoked by the disease are changing people's lifestyles and behavior. Since martial law was lifted in 1987, Taiwan has made significant progress in the protection of individual rights and freedoms. A popular Mandarin motto from the 1980s -- "As long as I like to do it, why shouldn't I?" (只要我喜歡,有什麼不可以) -- epitomizes the values of many Taiwanese. Now, the nation is paying a painful price for overemphasis on individual freedom and overlooking the rule or law and social discipline.

To limit the spread of SARS, the government has issued mandatory quarantine notices to people who are suspected to have come in contact with SARS patients. Such measures are in accordance with the Communicable Disease Prevention Law (傳染病防 治法) and the temporary provisions for SARS prevention. In Hong Kong and Singapore, people abide by the quarantine rules, whether in hospitals or communities. We have heard of few violations in those places. But here the situation is completely different.

Quarantine measures at Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital were immediately met with protests from its staff and their families. Hsinchu City Mayor Lin Junq-tzer (林政則) tried to block the transfer of suspected SARS patients to a hospital in his area. The widow of a man who died from SARS begged to be let into the hospital to see her husband for the last time. The authorities agreed on condition that she take the necessary precautions. She didn't -- and has now developed SARS-like symptoms.

We have also heard frequent reports about people violating home quarantine rules. On Sunday, Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien (余政憲) did a random check of someone under home quarantine and discovered that the person was not at home. A fine was immediately imposed. A Taipei high-school student under home quarantine still went to a cram school -- resulting in a large number of other students being put under home quarantine and causing panic among MRT passengers. The student regretted having broken the quarantine, but it was too late.

Those people placed under home quarantine must temporarily sacrifice their freedom for the sake of public health. The success of quarantine policies depends on cooperation from those under restriction. But that the necessity of the quarantine measures must be fully explained and understood. If those under quarantine cannot restrain themselves, then social pressure may build up in their neighborhood and constrain those people's wanton behavior.

Old habits die hard. The nation urgently needs to rebuild its crumbling social ethics. But such a task takes time. What's most important right now is strict enforcement of the law and of public-health restrictions. The government has been slow in imposing large-scale quarantine measures. Quarantine orders have also been slow in reaching the people concerned. Supervision of the enforcement has been weak. Only limited measures have been taken to help meet the basic daily needs of those under quarantine.

Providing clear and timely information is of paramount importance. Strict enforcement of quarantine measures is vital. If the government cannot follow Singapore's example of using surveillance equipment, then it should enlist community help to monitor the enforcement. It is also critical that the government ensure that those under quarantine receive the necessary medical supervision, food and cleaning supplies and trash pick-up that will make their confinement bearable. If that means hiring temporary workers to make supply runs for those in quarantine then that is what must be done.

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