Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: The time for selfishness is past

Since the SARS virus first spread to this country there have been many bizarre stories that appear to indicate that an alarmingly high degree of selfishness is considered normal in this society.

There was Taipei County businessman Li You-cheng (李有誠), who twice refused to let CKS airport staff take his temperature after he arrived in the country -- calling the temperature checks an abuse of human rights and detrimental to the nation's image. Next came reports of healthcare workers at a Taipei hospital fleeing a mandatory quarantine order. Then it turned out that some people placed under home quarantine were still going to cram schools, to work or out drinking with friends.

There are stories of businesspeople hoarding face masks as well as a drugstore on Taipei's Tihua Street that was reportedly selling N-95 masks for NT$700, about 10 times their normal price. Now vendors are selling masks everywhere in Taipei at double the normal price -- an indication that the mask shortage is due to hoarding by unscrupulous people.

In the face of such indifference to the wellbeing of others, why should healthcare workers be willing to risk their lives in the fight against SARS without support and cooperation from the general public?

The SARS epidemic is like a magic mirror that exposes demons in their true forms. It has revealed the black holes in the nation's healthcare system. It has also highlighted the government's powerlessness in the face of vicious partisan wrangling that has beset politics in this nation for so long. Above all, it has revealed the deplorable state of civic awareness.

The bloated egotism of the Taiwanese cannot be blamed solely on their selective adoption of Western democracy and human-rights concepts. The Taiwan-ese have inherited the Chinese habit of flouting and bending the law and placing themselves and their family above the needs of society.

A huge ego means that many people have no problem demanding the government and healthcare workers wage an all-out war against SARS, while also demanding their individual freedoms not be abridged the slightest bit. Reflected in the SARS mirror, the Taiwanese ideas about democracy and human rights appear shallow. The people have mistaken anarchy for democracy, selfishness for human rights. Hence the high-flown talk about "rights" at every turn couples with an obliviousness about "responsibilities."

The years of political wrangling have led the public to look down on politicians. The obstructionism between political parties has resulted in a weak government that worries more about a possible backlash from the opposition than what's the right thing to do. The people's disgust of politics and their government's weakness in turn contribute to the public's intransigence. People who no longer respect politicians won't respect their policies or their laws.

The fact that Taiwan is superior to China in terms of democratic politics and civic awareness has been part of its justification for trying to rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO). Now that the government is making an all-out effort to win observership in the WHO, the public must not undermine such efforts by their misbehavior.

At this crucial moment, the people of Taiwan should show some moral courage through self-

reflection. Instead of passively resenting the political wrangling that has deadlocked the legislature and damaged the economy they should take action to force politicians to make good on their pledges. They should condemn self-aggrandizing politicians who repeatedly make wild accusations -- or promises -- but fail to back them up. They should stop and consider the impact of their own actions on those of others. Most of all they should cooperate with all public health measures that may be required to curb the spread of SARS.

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