One lesson we learned from the outbreak of SARS is how fragile Taiwan becomes when faced with a national crisis.
Look at what happened in the last month. The Taipei City Government accused the Executive Yuan of overlooking the potential spread of SARS. The central government was obsessed with its initial record of zero mortality, zero local transmis-sions and zero transmission abroad. The lack of effective crisis management when an outbreak of SARS hit the Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital speeded up the spread of the virus.
Hsinchu Mayor Lin Jung-tzer's (林政則) tried to block the transfer of three SARS patients to Hsinchu General Hospital. Residents in other cities and counties have also opposed the transfer of SARS patients to hospitals in their neighborhoods.
KMT Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and PFP Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) boycotted a national security meeting convened by President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to collect advice and opinions from the opposition. It would have been their opportunity to privately express to the head of state their views on how to control the epidemic. Then came the public finger-pointing between ruling and opposition legislators over whether the Taipei City Government has mishandled the SARS outbreak.
Embedded in all of this political wrestling is a lack of mutual trust and democratic maturity. This spells the greatest danger for the country.
In contrast, the US' democratic system handles crises in a much more mature fashion. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the US government and citizens at all levels united in their fight against common enemies: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They encouraged each other and extended unanimous support to the government in its handling of the crisis.
The US has a true civil society shaped by more than 200 years of processes which have fostered mutual trust. This mutual trust shone brightly in the flourishing display of national flags and in patriotic speeches coming from various sectors of society. Americans offered their assistance and condolences to the victims of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, even though the only thing Americans shared was nationality.
In Taiwan, such human dignity was also shown after several typhoons hit the country. People worked hand-in-hand with their neighbors in rebuilding. Still, what separates the people of the US from so many others is that, in their hearts, they trust their countrymen.
Regretfully, we have not shown a united front in the face of the SARS crisis. Citizen participation is essential to democracy. But democratic maturity is only achieved through rational debate and mutual respect.
The main reason the oppositions refused to help the government was because of past rivalries. Taiwan's experiences over the past three years illustrates that political stability has a direct bearing on economic development and public confidence. Only a civil society that pursues political reconciliation and cooperation between the governing and opposition parties can constantly develop and produce the optimum benefits of democracy.
This is a time when all Taiwanese should stay calm and united, and understand the importance of being vigilant in peace time. Moreover, it is also a time for us to develop a sense of community.