Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been creating panic over the last month or so. People see danger lurking everywhere. The virus is still spreading, and unless the situation improves within the next few months, it will have an incomparable impact on public health, social atmosphere and the economy.
Regardless of what happens in the future, however, Taiwan's current control of the virus does in no way compare unfavorably with Canada, Singapore or Hong Kong, all of which have a higher national income and standard of living than this nation does.
I don't think this is due to the nation's medical equipment or medication being of a higher standard than in those countries, but rather that it is the result of our enthusiasm, altruism and willingness to take personal risks.
Because some senior teachers at Taiwan University Hospital were attending a meeting overseas, I stood in for them on two days over the past two weeks. I received a letter from the hospital administration saying that due to the increasing number of SARS patients, 24-hour one-on-one medical care had led to a serious shortage of medical staff, and that we therefore needed to send our departmental nurse specialist to assist the anti-SARS efforts.
As expected, she reacted by saying that we were already short-staffed in the osteology department, and that we are not familiar with internal medicine. She also said that one co-worker already had told her she would be afraid to talk to her in the future.
Medical workers are only human, and everyone is afraid of SARS. This is not only a threat to one's life, but it may even affect family and friends. What's more, this disease seems to have a preference for medical staff.
I tried to encourage the nurse, saying that saving lives is an urgent matter, that this was hospital policy and that we are bound by duty to treat SARS patients. I then told her that she was free to go, that we would help her take care of departmental duties, that this was an opportunity to unselfishly help others and that we trusted the hospital's preventive measures.
I even joked with her and said that in the unlikely event that something untoward should happen to her, I would be certain to see to it that her family would get the most honorable pension. She finally mustered enough courage and went to assist [in the SARS prevention effort]. I think this is one of the reasons Taiwan University Hospital has been able to maintain a zero death toll.
It is hard for outsiders to understand the medical staff's hard work and the threat to their lives. Treating SARS patients is very much like being an American or British soldier in the rain of bullets and bombs on the battlefield in Iraq, not knowing where the enemy will strike next. Add to this that the SARS virus is far deadlier than were former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
What guarantees are there that we won't be infected despite the implementation of stricter preventative measures by medical staff? Wasn't a US Army vehicle ambushed after getting lost in Iraq, leaving soldiers dead or taken prisoner?
Soldiers who die in battle are given the highest honors, and prisoners of war are given a hero's welcome when returning home. Soldiers on the SARS battlefield, however, are faced not only with the most vicious and evil of enemies, but they also have to see to it that they are not being held back from behind.