A troublesome and difficult question was recently posed by some members of the Western media. Is an authoritarian regime such as those found in China, Vietnam or Singapore more effective than a democratic one such as Taiwan's in suppressing and controlling epidemics? The problem is one may never know, because without transparent government measures, close media scrutiny, a free flow of information and the freedom of speech, one can never be sure how effective an authoritarian government has been. More importantly, even if the answer is yes, it is simply a painful but worthy price to pay for priceless democracy.
China is reportedly resorting to mass mobilization, using very intrusive, high-handed and even oppressive tactics to curb the spread of SARS. These include threatening to execute people who deliberately spread the disease, having people spy on each other, posting pictures and broadcasting the names of individuals returning from disease-stricken areas and quarantining entire villages for two weeks if just a few villagers show symptoms of the disease.
As a result of the daily decline in the reported number of new SARS infection cases in China, some World Health Organization experts have been impressed with Beijing's campaign to annihilate SARS, even if they question some of the tactics.
But one cannot help but remain skeptical about the rosy picture being painted. After all, it wasn't too long ago that China was still lying through its teeth about the extent of its outbreak. Given Beijing's long history of faking statistics, how believable are its SARS figures? In Taiwan, delays in reporting probable SARS cases by hospitals have been difficult to hide from the watchful eyes of the media and have made government officials targets of public criticism and anger. Who acts as watchdog for the Chinese people?
Very few outsiders and Westerners realize just how good Beijing is at conducting propaganda campaigns. With several foreign firms pulling their employees out of China and many more on the verge of doing the same, the anxiety level among Beijing's leadership is palpable. The potential economic devastation of SARS threatens the thread on which China's political stability hangs. It is enough to turn China's leaders into insomniacs. Under the circumstances, what better way to go than to stage a propaganda campaign that will instill faith and calm the nerves of both foreign investors and the Chinese masses about the government's ability to contain the SARS epidemic?
Anyone who recalls how Beijing mobilized the public to donate whatever scrap and household metal they had and to participate in melting such items into steel during the Great Leap Forward knows how much credibility to give to such seemingly impressive mobilization and propaganda
If effective control of the SARS epidemic is the only thing that matters, then there are even more drastic measures available than those adopted by China. For example, the fastest and most effective way to cure bone cancer is probably to remove the limb all together. But no doctor in his or her right mind would make such a recommendation until it is absolutely necessary because of the harm it would cause the patient.
Between freedom and curbing the spread of SARS, a line must be drawn. Both must be compromised a little in order to accomplish both in the long run. It would be foolish to give up one for the other. One must also keep in mind that it is much more difficult, time-consuming and costly to eradicate autocracies than the SARS virus. Moreover, democracy and freedoms should outlast the SARS epidemic -- that is the conscious and rational decision that has been made by all people of democratic countries.