Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Letter:

Time to eat crow?

As I review the editorials written over the last few weeks about the SARS outbreak and watch the behavior of the powers-that-be in Taiwan, I question just how much better the country's handling of the outbreak has been.

For example, your editorial of April 17 suggests that it is China's despotism that is one of the chief causes of its bungling of the SARS epidemic. Perhaps we should review the facts. Yes, the Chinese government at the highest levels seems to have misled the public and may be directly responsible for countless deaths and infections domestically and across the globe. Call it negligent homicide if you like.

But what amazes me most, as a resident of the current SARS capital of the world, Beijing, is the following: Once China realized they could no longer hide the truth, the action they have taken has been direct, powerful and far-reaching. Schools were closed, the national "Golden Week" was cancelled despite the economic impact and some high-ranking (even if symbolic) heads rolled.

The students at the campus where I teach, in the highly-affected Haidian district, have been kept on campus. So far we have been fortunate not to have a single case among more than 6,000 students on campus. With-in three weeks of the truth being revealed, the situation in the capital, at least, has improved from 100 new cases a day to about 30.

The pinnacle of China's achievements in response to the outbreak is the establishment of a fully-functioning 1,000-bed hospital in just six days. This hospital is specifically for the use of SARS cases.

Now let us consider Taiwan's approach. A few imported cases seemed to have been kept under control back early last month. The newspapers (including this one) beamed with arrogant smiles of superiority.

Now allegations of how there were attempts to cover up in Taipei are emerging. Some harsh words will soon have to be swallowed.

Then there is the fact that Taiwan has had weeks to put in place appropriate mechanisms for preventing the spread of SARS. Instead, it seems those with a say were slapping backs for effectively containing the crisis. How mass-outbreaks are still possible in hospitals after all the time hospitals have had to take precautions, as well as the level of training of medical staff, is mind-boggling.

The questions that remain now include the following: How many of these deaths (and ones that will surely follow) could have been prevented had the authorities spent their time improving hospital safety and enforcing practical measures instead of gloating over the incompetence of their cross-strait cousins? Are the authorities at Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital and elsewhere guilty of a fatal cover-up?

Most importantly, have the Taiwanese in fact been any better at handling the crisis than the Chinese? This question is particularly disturbing considering the Taiwanese had so many things counting in their favor -- forewarning, a world-class medical system (or so we are told, repeatedly), a transparent democratic system (according to this newspaper) and highly-educated, informed people.

These gaping holes in Taiwan's explanation of its handling of the situation will not be filled by the glib comments of those who like to point out their own alleged supremacy.

David Norman

Beijing

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