Amid reports that more than 100 people have died in Mexico from what is believed to be H1N1 swine influenza, 20 confirmed cases in the US and daily reports of possible cases in every corner of the world, Taiwanese health authorities have reacted with propriety: They have called for calm, reassured the public that the disease cannot be transmitted via food and heightened monitoring at ports of entry.
Fears of a pandemic and its impact on the global economy’s recovery sent most stock markets down yesterday, with the TAIEX dropping 2.99 percent. Economists in Australia, meanwhile, were saying that even a mild outbreak of swine flu could result in 1.4 million deaths worldwide and US$330 billion in lost production. (To put things in perspective, the Asian Development Bank said the cost of the SARS outbreak in 2003 for East and Southeast Asia was about US$18 billion.)
While it would be premature to call this “the big one” scientists have long been predicting, swine flu was responsible for three major pandemics in the past century — in 1918, 1957 and 1968.
Modern travel and the sheer number of people traveling daily have made it far easier for communicable diseases to spread. Given this, and in light of reports of possible outbreaks in countries such as New Zealand, which has ordered 50 people there to be quarantined, it is only a matter of time before cases start appearing close to home. In fact, it would not be a surprise if China already had some, which raises the specter, once again, of Chinese authorities’ tendency to muzzle reports of disease outbreaks — as it did in 2003.
The likelihood that an outbreak in China would go unreported is perhaps even greater today given the economic situation and fears of social instability. Confirmation of an outbreak and its consequences for the tottering economy would risk exacerbating social problems and undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s image as a totem of stability. Even if China had learned its lessons from 2003, institutional friction and the fact that information on disease outbreaks in China is a “state secret” means that by the time the information is made public, it may be too late to prevent the disease from spreading, especially in densely populated areas.
Aside from highlighting the urgent need for Taiwan to gain WHO representation, as well as the importance of direct connection to the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which Taiwan obtained earlier this year, the present scare raises questions about additional risks created by the recent rise in tourist arrivals from China and increases in the number of direct cross-strait flights.
While there is no question that checking body temperature at points of arrival is a necessary first line of defense, the short distance that needs to be covered for Chinese to travel to Taiwan means that by the time they arrive, people infected with swine flu may not have begun displaying telltale symptoms of the disease — sudden fever, coughing, muscle aches and extreme fatigue — and can remain contagious for as long as a week, the US Centers for Disease Control says.
Faced with so many uncertainties concerning China’s ability or willingness to be a responsible stakeholder when an epidemic occurs, and given Beijing’s poor track record, how would the Taiwanese government react? If the situation takes a turn for the worse and cases start appearing in China, would Taipei, given the position of dependence it has burdened itself with vis-a-vis China, be able to unilaterally suspend cross-strait flights?