Thu, May 22, 2003 - Page 8 News List

China's catastrophe is a catalyst

By Bo Gunnarsson

Despite strong economic development and promises of continued reform, the new Chinese leadership has had a nightmarish beginning.

A heritage of lies threatens not only China's own aspirations of becoming a great power, but over the long term, it also threatens the recovery of the global economy.

Silence, cover-ups and flat denial are still part of the political culture in this, the world's most populous, nation.

The responsibility for the increasingly alarming SARS epidemic rests on the shoulders of this one-party state.

The reasons for this are, in equal parts, incompetence, arrogance and lack of accountability. The top-level generational change has also resulted in neither bureaucracy nor doctors daring to disturb the order or the status quo by exposing an uncomfortable truth. The Communist Party regards bad news as state secrets. This is an instinctive reaction deeply embedded in the party and the power elite.

The international reputation of the PRC has sustained an unprecedented blow, and the World Health Organization's (WHO) temporary blacklisting of Beijing as a travel destination is the ultimate humiliation.

But that is exactly where the key to the virus lies.

The SARS epidemic is a catalyst for change. The leadership has been forced to act. Passivity has been transformed into aggressive activity. From one extreme to another, this new openness has contributed to the panic seen in Beijing.

The real danger is not now, but in the future. Current efforts are primarily aimed at damage control. But this is not enough, and China needs assistance to take the next step.

The public health-care system, previously admired as a model for poorer countries, has not survived the reforms and the so-called socialist market economy. Health care has instead become a class issue, and the free medical care introduced by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) is now a privilege enjoyed only by state employees.

In the countryside, health clinics and health services have fallen into decay. Costs are so high that people no longer can afford to see a doctor. The fact that the SARS-virus could kill means little, since 80 percent of the infected recover relatively quickly even without medication. As a result of the silence about SARS imposed on the media, most people see possible symptoms simply as symptoms of any of a number of flu epidemics. The unknown numbers in the ongoing epidemic are, therefore, probably great.

We have experienced this before. The AIDS epidemic in China is another terrifying example of where silence and secrecy may lead. The blood plasma scandal in Henan Province infecting 1 million farmers with HIV could have been avoided with a higher degree of openness.

The SARS virus threatens to trigger a global epidemic, and if the virus were as contagious as the flu, millions of people around the world would have already been hit.

China has misled us all. Authorities refused to inform the WHO, and Guangdong Province kept Hong Kong completely in the dark, despite the fact that the former British colony has been under the jurisdiction of Beijing for five years. First came denials, then standard phrases such as "everything is under control."

The WHO accepted China's unwillingness to cooperate for a full three months. This is a big stain on the otherwise competent leadership of WHO Director-General Gro Harlem-Brundtland. A new, unknown virus that kills, severely crowded living conditions and experiences from earlier flu epidemics are facts that should have caused the global "health police" to threaten with or actually bring in the UN Security Council.

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