Tue, May 20, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Progress counts for naught in SARS crisis

By Hsu Yung-ming 徐永明

Besides the direct impact on our safety, a clearer lesson from the SARS attack on Taiwan is that we are some distance from the level of modern countries. The economic achievements and democracy that we used to take pride in have essentially come across striking challenges, with their capabilities and effects becoming a major question mark.

Economically, not only the nation's structural dependence on China has come to the fore, but high growth as the core of economic thought has met grave challenges as well. This crisis has proved that high income is not synonymous with a civic society that is independent and autonomous. And in addition to the general public's panic, the media and medical establishments -- which are supposed to be modern and professional -- have appeared to be chaotic under SARS' shadow.

Obviously, these professional establishments which are supposed to be autonomous and self-disciplined as in Western societies have made slow progress. We have a highly-developed economy, internationally-admired silicon wafer technology and competitive electoral politics. However, it is the disorderly professional establishments and lagging government institutions which are taking direct charge of fighting SARS.

As SARS brings a crisis to society, Singapore has its administrative ability to control the disease source and put people in quarantine. China can mobilize its people to set up hospitals by taking advantage of patriotism to encourage self-sacrifice. The state of Taiwan's democratic vitality, however, has fallen to a "state of nature," in which leaders compete to show their guts, professionals compete to shirk responsibilities, businesspeople compete to hoard up masks and people compete for self-preservation.

In such a chaotic state, nursing personnel are sacrificed. People in quarantine are treated with indifference. Homeless people at the very bottom of society are discriminated against. And then, society as a whole will be faced with disintegration. Doubts over the epidemic situation will supersede the original, weak sense of trying to weather the crisis together.

The nation's modernization process has discrepancies. Electoral groupings based on political parties, positions on unification or independence and the division of pan-blue and pan-green camps are not enough to keep up a modern nation. People's public duties and community participation are often simplified as just voting in elections. People's abilities to think over public policies are attached to the bias of political parties and leaders, whose judgments on administrative accountability often end up in verbal battles.

The result is that our society shows intense emotion during election campaigns but becomes exceptionally apathetic in the periods in between. We have fervent voters with a high degree of participation, but not self-disciplined voters who can decide for themselves.

The opposition movement used to use the term gemeinschaft [community] of destiny to unite people and emphasize the push for local identity. This idea appears to be more significant in the face of current challenge. When we can longer rely on administrative control from the top down and when the abilities of professional establishments and moral principles have been proved deficient, the old platform based on political identity must be transformed into one that calls for social identity based on the citizenry. The emphasis will be on the community's responsibilities and obligations, not the rotation of power among political parties.

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