Fri, May 16, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Where do we draw the line?

On Wednesday, David Hong (洪德生), vice president of the Taiwan Institution of Economic Research, made a bold proposal -- to shut down and seal off the entire country for 10 days in order to control the spread of SARS. The closure would allow time to sterilize the entire country and, hopefully, limit the person-to-person contact that the virus thrives on. If the details of such a plan were carefully drafted and effectively implemented, and if everyone cooperated fully, the proposal could be a great success.

Hong broached the idea at a meeting of business leaders and it quickly gained the backing of many in attendance, including General Chamber of Commerce (GCC) chairman Gary Wang (王令麟) and two-thirds of the other attendees. However, many others were quick to point out it was completely infeasible.

The social and economic costs would be enormous. If the plan worked, however, such costs could be worth it. After all, many businesses and shops couldn't possibly fare much worse than they are now as people cut back on shopping and entertainment spending for fear of contracting SARS. If the outbreak continues unabated for two to three more months, the economic and social costs would be more than those incurred by implementing Hong's proposal.

Council for Economic Planning and Development Vice Chairman Ho Mei-yueh (何美玥) said that the National Federation of Industries opposed the idea because, unlike the service sector, manufacturing industries are contractually bound to ship out goods on schedule. If factories and plants were ordered to shut down for 10 days, the manufacturers would not only suffer immediate financial losses, but lose future contracts as well.

Ho is correct. But what if the scope of the measures' application is narrowed and confined to those areas and facilities that are non-manufacturing-

related and open to the general public, such as theaters, department stores, parks, restaurants, government agencies and schools?

Factories and plants, as well as essential public facilities such as hospitals, police stations and perhaps public transportation could continue to operate under strict supervision. This would reduce the chances of the disease being spread to strangers, or unidentifiable targets. As a matter of fact, the plan could be confined to Taipei City, where the spread of the disease is the most serious.

Some of the critical supplemental measures would be the provision of home-learning programs for students and company leave for working parents. The Ministry of Education has already indicated it has devised plans to air such programs through the Public Television Service or other local television stations.

However, in view of what has happened over the past weeks, it seems hard to envision the central and local governments being able to muster the high level of coordination, cooperation, efficiency and precision essential to such a measure. The lack of a coordinated plan for all levels of the nation's medical facilities to deal with SARS as well as shortage of face masks has called into question the governments' ability to coordinate and execute key strategies.

It is also hard to image that many members of the general public would be willing to cooperate with such a life-altering move. A lot of people are not willing to follow the government's existing anti-SARS measures. So the idea of even more restrictive measures being ordered, agreed to and enforced is quite remote.

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