Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 8 News List

SARS and the role of government

By Ifzal Ali

First, the accurate, timely and transparent provision of information on the nature and extent of SARS is critical for containing the epidemic and reducing the public's fears and resulting uncertainty.

Governments need to work closely with medical professionals to generate and disseminate accurate information about the risks and extent of a disease, and preventative measures. Any apparent lack of transparency is likely to cause second-guessing and panic among the public.

Second, as Vietnam's success in dealing with SARS demonstrates, rapid and decisive policy res-ponses and actions are imperative in dealing with epidemics.

People infected with a virus may not seek medical care quickly enough to avoid spreading the disease. With the increased mobility of people and the significant flow of goods and services, disease can be transmitted quickly on a large scale. Any delay in preventative action will lead to greater costs later.

Third, fiscal preparedness is key to rapid response. Addressing the outbreak and its aftermath will call for increased public spending, while the likely slowdown of economic activities could reduce government revenue. Together these realities will worsen government fiscal positions.

The possibility of similar shocks in the future underlines the need for governments to implement prudent fiscal policies, to accumulate primary surpluses and to set aside appropriate amounts in annual budgets for unexpected contingencies.

Fourth, governments must form long-term strategies and develop institutional capacities to deal with contagious diseases.

SARS is not the first outbreak of disease in the modern era. It will not be the last. The rise of drug-resistant microbes and the resurgence of previously controlled diseases such as tuberculosis make the effective provision of public health services more important than ever.

These are serious tests for developing nations. But for the past two decades developing Asia has been characterized by pragmatic policy responses to emerging challenges.

The lessons learned already from the SARS epidemic will help contain the disease in the short-term, initiate improvements in public health systems that will benefit people in the medium-term and systematically improve the quality of health research and health care that will have major positive impacts over the long-term. Actions taken now, both individually and collectively, will determine whether Asia will once again transform the challenge of today into the opportunities of tomorrow.

Ifzal Ali is chief economist at the Asian Development Bank. This article is based on a speech he delivered at a recent Boao Forum meeting in Beijing on SARS.

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