Fri, Aug 08, 2003 - Page 4 News List

Correspondents defy Beijing to hear SARS brief

GET THE MESSAGE China did not want university professor Lee Ming-liang to speak to the UN group; the fact that he did is seen as a kind of breakthrough


Despite protests from the government of China, Lee Ming-liang (李明亮), president emeritus of Tzu Chi University in Hualien, briefed UN correspondents on Wednesday about how Taiwan managed the SARS crisis.

"Lots of people ask me whether it is coming back or not. I say chances are that it will be back, but as long as we are well-prepared, and you have public health structures there, I think it is not a bad epidemic," Lee said.

Lee stressed that SARS can go anywhere and "no country can be immune," noting that cases had been reported in 29 countries.

He said there were a number of lessons from the outbreak -- including the need to keep the public informed but avoid "media frenzy," the need to handle any infections disease at an international level, the need for more experts in infectious diseases and the need for a permanent national strategy to combat SARS.

At the end of the briefing, Tony Jenkins, president of the UN Correspondents Association, said he had a message for China.

"What is there to be afraid of? This is information that everybody needs. Infectious disease is something that is increasingly affecting the world," Jenkins said.

On May 23, after China protested, the UN banned Andrew Li-Yan Hsia (夏立言), director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, from holding a press conference at UN headquarters about SARS.

But Lee was allowed to speak at the UN Correspondents Association's club at UN headquarters on Wednesday and to attend a lunch there hosted by Gambia.

UN Spokesman Fred Eckhard said in May that the General Assembly "has a firm position on a one-China policy" and Hsia would be speaking as a Taiwan government representative.

By contrast, Lee was speaking as a medical expert on the SARS outbreak. Hsia was allowed to attend the briefing and lunch on Wednesday.

Tony Jenkins, president of the UN Correspondents Association, said China's UN Mission objected to the word "Taiwan" in the press announcement of Lee's briefing, and warned of "serious damage" to relations with the group if it went ahead.

Despite the warning, and "in pursuit of free speech at the UN," the association's executive committee decided to go ahead with the briefing, he said.

China insists that Taiwan is one of its provinces and not eligible for UN membership.

For the past 11 years, Taiwan's allies, including Gambia, have failed to get membership for the country on the UN General Assembly's agenda. Critics say that excluding Taiwan from the world body violates the rights of Taiwan's 23 million people.

After surfacing in southern China in November, SARS infected more than 8,400 people worldwide and killed more than 800 people.

During the SARS outbreak, Taiwan registered 671 cases, including 84 deaths, the third highest number in the world, behind China and Hong Kong.

Taiwan was taken off the World Health Organization's list of SARS-infected areas on July 5.

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