Tue, Jul 22, 2003 - Page 8 News List

It's time we all learned our lesson

By Ku Chung-hwa 顧忠華

SARS seems to have left us. In the last few days the hustle and bustle of Taiwan has returned and political invective has sprung up once again. Although many public places still continue to take body temperatures at their doors, we are in a better frame of mind to gradually accept it as a routine practice and the tense atmosphere is no longer present.

Is it possible that SARS will have no ripple effect from now on? Chiu Hei-yuan, a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, raised this question at a workshop on "risk management and social reconstruction in the post-SARS period," sponsored by the National Youth Commission and the National Association for the Promotion of Community Universities.

If Taiwan cannot sort out the valuable experience of how the government and the people can work together on epidemic prevention, will we panic and repeat past failures should SARS strike us again in the fall?

In several workshops of a similar kind held recently, no expert or academic from any domain dared to take it lightly. Whether they look at the situation systemically -- dealing with public health, medical care and epidemic prevention -- or proactively -- dealing with information dissemination, mobilization of resources and community participation -- they believed that in-depth innovative reforms must be implemented in order to set up a comprehensive system. This will offer proper preparation for the "risk society."

Indeed, it is possible that the experts' "inventory of knowledge" may completely lose efficacy in the face of challenges from new risks. This can increase the difficulty of risk perception, risk identification, risk calculation, risk assessment and even risk control. It can also make the public's confidence in the government waver, thereby increasing the dangers of uncertainty in modern times.

In the case of SARS, the lack of risk awareness among the nation's medical workers created not only a weak spot in epidemic prevention but also a mass panic that provoked the public to overestimate the risk after the shutdown of the Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital. The end result was a disorderly scene in which people rushed to buy masks but did not know how to use them.

It also revealed that Taiwan lacked orderly ways in risk communication, because knowledge was unable to be converted in time into information that could be easily understood and obtained by the public. The "marginal utility" of panic control could not be brought into full play.

In an investigative report on the social situation during the SARS period, the Academia Sinica compared the extent to which the general public in Taiwan and in Hong Kong believed the media.

In Taiwan, one third of people "completely believed" the electronic media and the print media while in Hong Kong less than one half did.

Besides risk perception and risk communication, the SARS lesson on the issue of risk governance includes political, economic, social and cultural elements, and should not be treated simplistically.

When "civic awareness" is not evident and there is a lack of "public domain" to reach a consensus, the power and prestige of politics and science can possibly collapse overnight to almost paralyze society.

In the past, "crisis management" took the form of command from the top down. The more effective way of risk governance should adopt the form of two-way communication, emphasizing the building of organic network relations among private institutions, communities and non-profit organizations. With close interaction and mutual trust, these groups can then set up a platform for the flow of information, complementary resources and mobile division of labor.

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