Wed, May 14, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan must consider SARS threat

By Huang Tien-lin 黃天麟

On Sunday, May 4, the Taipei Times published a letter from Brad Arnold in its editorial section. Arnold suggested that if Taiwan really wanted to overcome SARS, it would have to close its borders or institute long-term draconian epidemiological controls, imposing a seven-day forced quarantine for all travelers from China.

He believes that SARS will remain in China for some time because of the size of the country and the distance between cities and villages. "Unless Taiwan stays SARS-free, people of the world will shun the Taiwanese ... Every time a person coughs, people will panic, and think, `Has that person traveled from China?'" he wrote.

The SARS virus has already been moving stealthily about Taiwan for over a month. To begin with, the government relied on high medical standards and modern facilities to successfully keep the number of cases below 30.

Then, just as Taiwan was glowing with pride over its achievement, people started doubting that the result could be maintained. As people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait were allowed frequent exchanges, preventing SARS from entering Taiwan became an almost impossible task.

As expected, the SARS virus entered Taiwan after moving around all over China. It finally exploded in the collective infection in Hoping Hospital and is spreading rapidly.

Both the government and the public are directing all their efforts toward preventing an epidemic, relying on government focus, the expertise of officials and the educational standard of the public for investigation and evaluation of SARS cases.

We are all confident in our belief that the epidemic will be controlled before long. However, and just as Arnold points out, it will be very difficult to eliminate the epidemic from the Chinese countryside even though it has come under control in its cities. If the people of Taiwan are forgetful and in a rush to return to go on holiday again, the virus will be reintroduced here, leading to a second or even a third wave in Taiwan.

This is no farfetched concern, given that 3.8 million Taiwanese travel to China every year. In fact, more people from Taiwan than any other country visit China, meaning there is a higher risk of reintroducing the virus to Taiwan than to other countries.

Taiwanese annually spend more than NT$110 billion on tourism in China, roughly twice the amount budgeted for the SARS prevention bill passed by the Legislative Yuan two weeks ago.

It is ironic that China is the only country blocking Taiwan from being an observer at the World Health Organization (WHO). When the WHO was about to send their experts to Taiwan recently, its spokesperson still had to explain to the outside world that "China has already agreed to the WHO sending personnel to Taiwan" before it could do so.

The people of Taiwan must display dignity and righteous anger towards China's disregard for their health and safety and trampling of their right to exist. They should demand that the government suspend travel to China for tourism purposes (necessary commercial exchanges are OK, but should be subjected to strict controls).

If China once again opposes Taiwan's accession to the WHO, the government should not deregulate tourism to this area, where the danger of an epidemic lurks everywhere.

This is absolutely not a case of opportunistic opposition to China, nor is it an emotional act, but rather a self-defense measure to protect Taiwan's economy and to maintain employment here. It is no different from the current measures to prevent the epidemic by placing those infected under quarantine.

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