China’s reaction to SARS, then and now

There’s no question the Chinese government is reacting far better to SARS this go-round, and the reason is clear: all the pressure it was under last year when it tried to bury the story and lie about it:

Last year, when what would become SARS first appeared, you couldn’t pry information loose from China’s secretive government. Now, as the virus edges back into the spotlight, the country’s leadership has a different message: Operators are standing by.

A Health Ministry hotline that opened this week is one extraordinary indication of a usually unresponsive government’s starkly different public approach as it marshals forces for Round Two of the fight against severe acute respiratory syndrome.

This time, the government has worked hard to appear swift and decisive — and make frequent statements that sound open and informative.

The response reflects an evolution in the way China, long accustomed to burying bad news, is dealing with the press and the public — a change quite probably driven by the blistering overseas reaction to the way it handled things last time.

What I totally reject as nonsense is the lame excuse one health official gives for the initial veil of secrecy.

“Last year, we were at our wit’s end. We didn’t understand or recognize this illness. We didn’t have a lot of knowledge about it, especially when it first emerged,” said Tang Xiaoping, president of Guangzhou’s No. 8 People’s Hospital, where suspected SARS cases are transferred. “This year,” he said, “we were prepared to fight this war.”

This is bollocks. They knew as much as Vietnam and Singapore and Hong Kong did, but while those countries instantly embarked on an aggressive campaign of education, awareness, screening and tight controls, the Chinese did the exact opposite. They said it didn’t exist. They said it had been eradicated. They hid SARS victims from the WHO, sticking them in ambulances. Then for the Party Congress in March, they issued a warning to all the media not to report on SARS in Beijing; can’t spoil the big celebration, can we?

So understanding the intricacies of the disease is a true BS excuse. Imagine a highly contagious lethal new disease spreading in the US and the CDC not saying a word because they didn’t understand it. They had almost no knowledge or understanding of AIDS at first, but the instant it was recognized as something that could be spread from person to person, it was all over the news. Same with SARS in every other country it spread to; only China chose silence.

At least it looks like they’ve learned their lesson, albeit the hard way. I am still waiting for this new-found openness to be extended to AIDS. It’s definitely started to improve, but so slowly, and mainly thanks to influence from figures like Dr. David Ho and Bill Clinton.

Update: For some interesting thoughts on how the latest SARS case was handled in Guandong, be sure to see Adam’s new post.

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