China Syndrome: How SARS was born

This book review is one hell of a read. Sorry for the extended clip, but it’s worth preserving here.

It is thought that Sars originated in the city of Shenzen, in southern China’s Guangdong province. Early on, Greenfeld swoops in on the aptly named Fang Lin, an illegal immigrant to the city from the countryside, who finds a job handling and slaughtering exotic wild animals for restaurants. “Wild flavour”, as it is known, is an important ingredient in China’s new culture of conspicuous consumption. Thanks to lax regulation, the trade in snakes, camels, otters, monkeys, badgers, bats, pangolins, geese, civets, wild boars – anything that can be trapped or hunted – has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Animals are kept in filthy conditions in the backs of restaurant kitchens, where they are butchered only after diners have made their choice. Fang Lin would emerge after a night’s work covered in the blood and excreta of panicked animals, and would chain-smoke to kill the stench.

It is in this overcrowded, pollution-ridden environment that a virus hops over the species barrier, from civet cats to humans. Sars is born. But it has yet to be identified. The disease that emerges is a terrifyingly contagious mystery fever, developing swiftly to a horrific pneumonia, fatal in many cases, and with a high incidence among healthcare staff.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, sensitive and alert after the 1997 outbreak of avian flu, a handful of migratory birds are found dead of the H5N1 influenza. The fear that the new, atypical pneumonia in China, word of which spreads through medical networks, might be the dreaded, mutated avian flu is tested repeatedly, after samples of body effluvia pass perilously and illegally from mainland China to laboratories in Hong Kong. The negative results only add to the rising panic.

The story unfolds like a whodunnit, with a large cast of rogues, victims and heroes. The chief villain is the Chinese government, so secretive and paranoid that it seems it would rather unleash a deadly virus upon the world than be castigated for letting foreigners blame China for it. As one microbiologist comments: “Human lives just aren’t as valuable in China.” But the author reminds us that this ostrich-like attitude is not unique; indeed, it mirrors the Reagan administration’s response to Aids in the 1980s.

We all know how the story unfolded. And while the comparison to Reagan and AIDS has some merit, it has to be remembered that SARS threatened everyone, men, women and children. AIDS was far more selective and more difficult to acquire. When the CCP ignored AIDS, there was barely a whimper from the international community because all of the victims were the disenfranchised – gays, prostitutes, injection drug users and dirt-poor peasants selling their blood for a pittance. SARS posed a danger to everyone, and it still amazes the world that it took so long for China to admit its cover up at the expense of its citizens’ lives.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

“Human lives just aren’t as valuable in China.”
Or as in Louisianna apparently, after having just watched ‘When the Levees Broke’….

September 8, 2006 @ 2:02 am | Comment

Yeah, but those were brown people in Louisiana…

September 8, 2006 @ 2:20 am | Comment

I defer to Kanye West on this one…

September 8, 2006 @ 2:38 am | Comment

Worse than brown – they were poor.

September 8, 2006 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

Haha, yes I must say that the Katrina Hurricane incident showed the world how non-effective America is in dealing with disasters.

SARS was something that’s very hard to cure and prevent, I believe that the Chinese government handled it very well, at least I’m satifisied, I believe that most Chinese people were also satisfied. There were no mass death and there was no chaos in society, the SARS contagens were stopped very quickly, and many local officials who tried to underreport incidents were fired, such as the mayor of Beijing. This shows that the Chinese government has become more responsible and “transparent” and is a 21st-century modern government, not a backward government.

September 10, 2006 @ 1:08 pm | Comment


Um, people were fired LATER ON for underreporting, but from the beginning, people were arrested for reporting in the first place. THe CCP waited until the death toll was getting high and people were circumnavigating the CCP media with their cell-phones before attempting to save face by coming out about it. the CCP was not being responsible, it was crying like a child caught with it’s hand in the cookie jar. Because of the CCP’s “mianzi”, people died. Do you understand that, pigsun? People died

September 10, 2006 @ 2:06 pm | Comment

Basically, no matter what the CCP did, you will always find an angle to attack it:

If the CCP beocmes very honest announced that “SARS is very very dangerous, anyone who gets SARS will die, there’ll be at least 200,000 dead in China due to SARS this year, etc”. Your angle willl simply be “Even the CCP says SARS will kill at least 200,000, just look at how the CCP has destroyed China with such poor hygiene practices that caused SARS, oh my god!”

So basically, it is not what the CCP did that caused you to attack it, it’s because it’s the CCP, so everything it does will be a cause to attack it, right? So you attack based on the person, not based on the event.

September 10, 2006 @ 4:04 pm | Comment

No, I am criticizing the CCP for a legitimate reason, they delayed the announcement of the real spread of a real and very dangerous disease. Not only did they delay the announcement, but arrested people without cause who tried to get the truth out. That is disgusting, and the blood of many SARS victims, including those outside China, is on the hands of the CCP.

Also, why are you so scared of criticism of the CCP? Did they come crying to you to protect them from the mean bloggers at Pekingduck? I mean, a party of tens of millions is so wimpy and insecure that it can’t take the heat of some guy on the internet saying they’re dumb? How pathetic is that?

September 10, 2006 @ 11:39 pm | Comment

Thanks Chip – you are spot-on. The only reason Beijing had to fire the mayor and the health minister (who were pure scapegoats) was that the government had committed an egregious crime, a classic cover-up at the expense of the lives of its own people. Firing the mayor didn’t bring back the 800+ who died, many unnecessarily. But then, the CCP not giving a rat’s ass about the lives of its people is nothing new. It’s what they’ve been all about from the begining, I’m afraid.

September 11, 2006 @ 12:35 am | Comment

I think it should be pointed out that the animals providing all that “wild flavor” so popular in China for the most part don’t come from China. Wildlife in Southeast Asia, Russia, and Mongolia is being wiped out to satisfy an entirely unnecessary Chinese fixation.

September 11, 2006 @ 8:14 am | Comment

Yeah, I always find it humourous to hear my co-workers in Beijing say “SARS is all those barbaric Nanfangers fault, they always eat weird animals and animal parts” as they chew on their pig’s ears and fish eyeballs.

September 11, 2006 @ 7:51 pm | Comment

People of all colors — brown, yellow, white, and some shades between (though certainly a good bit are poor, or at least poorer than the majority) — were affected and displaced by the floods and hurricane (don’t forget the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) and are similarly not being helped.

September 12, 2006 @ 2:18 am | Comment

Therese, that’s a really strange comment. Some people weren’t helped by the US government after Katrina – absolutely true. But to compare that to what China did with SARS is, um, bizarre. There was a coverup over SARS, the government told people there was zero SARS in Beijing and hid the patients, all so they would look good for the People’s Congress. In other words, they killed their own people through lack of information, and the level of SARS soared in Beijing in April 2003. There was gross negligence and incompetence in regard to Katrina, and a lot of CYA, but there was no parallel coverup.

September 12, 2006 @ 2:43 am | Comment

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