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Thanks, China

The Wall Street Journal reports today on the Chinese front in the war against SARS. I quote extensively from this article because of the import:

China revealed that a lethal strain of pneumonia has caused an additional 12 deaths and hundreds of new cases, and said it would allow a team of foreign specialists to visit the area where the outbreaks first occurred.

Wednesday's developments suggest that China's leadership -- facing its first major challenge since taking office earlier this year -- is seeking to address sharp criticism of its handling of the outbreak as economic and political fallout grows.

The World Health Organization said severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, has spread to five Chinese provinces and Beijing, infecting a total of 1,190 people and causing 46 deaths since November. Included in the tally were figures released Wednesday by the southern province of Guangdong, which put its latest death toll at 40. The WHO, which is sending a team of doctors to Guangdong, also issued a rare alert urging travelers to avoid the province and Hong Kong, two of the hardest-hit areas.

China has come under fire at home and abroad for its rigid control of information and slow response to the epidemic. Besides its halting disclosure of new SARS cases, Chinese authorities took five days to grant the WHO's request to visit Guangdong. In a rare rebuke from the state-controlled media Wednesday, the English-language China Daily newspaper blamed local authorities for failing to inform the public about the outbreak...

In seeking explanations for China's actions, some analysts note the paradox facing Beijing. China's open door to investment has launched more than two decades of growth and prosperity. But that growth has led authorities to fear releasing information that might rattle the public and scare off the foreign investment on which the economy increasingly depends. Though it has been unwilling to concede that its public-health failures may be responsible for the disease's global spread, Beijing is now realizing the cost of that policy, these analysts say...

An account of the spread of SARS makes clear that if Chinese authorities had acted differently, the outbreak might have taken a different course and more might now be known about the disease. The virus, which spreads through close contact with an infected person and incubates for as long as 10 days, seems to have first appeared in Guangdong in November, about the same time that new local Communist Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang was taking over the leadership of the province. Authorities quickly clamped down on reporting by the domestic media after nervous residents in southern cities began to stockpile medical supplies.

Guangdong authorities remained silent about the illness until Feb. 11, when provincial officials revealed the scope of the outbreak, reporting 305 recorded cases and five deaths from atypical pneumonia; they also said that the outbreak was under control.

Provincial authorities belatedly admitted on March 26 that by the end of February -- 15 days after Guangdong's assertion that the outbreak was under control -- cases in their province more than doubled, to 792 from 305, with 31 deaths.

During those 15 days, as alarm mounted over the new disease, Secretary Zhang, a Politburo member who outranks the minister of health, tried to calm public fears. On Feb. 14, he ordered provincial officials to educate the public to "voluntarily uphold social stability, not believe in rumors, not spread rumors" and to focus on the party's goal of building China into a "comparatively well-off society." According to the media outlet of the Guangdong party committee, the Southern Daily, police summoned the operators of leading Web sites and ordered them to carry only positive reports about the fight against the illness.

This approach wasn't limited to Guangdong. When Beijing authorities admitted on March 26 that there were SARS cases in city hospitals, the news didn't get front-page treatment in local newspapers the next day. Under orders from the city's propaganda authorities, the capital's stable of papers, normally fierce rivals, all ran the same brief three-paragraph story tucked away on their inside pages, and all under the same reassuring headline: "Imported atypical pneumonia in our city has been effectively controlled."

It was only on March 28 -- more than four months after the first known case -- that the government told the WHO it would make SARS a "Category B" disease, meaning that provincial health officials would be obliged to notify central health authorities of cases. But as of Wednesday, according to Wu Kejun of the Department of International Cooperation at the Ministry of Health, "the ministry has required local governments to report to the central government about SARS cases once in a while, but how to classify SARS is still under discussion." ...

Even Wednesday, there were signs Beijing could do more. Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang broke the general silence on the issue in a state-television interview, but he said the outbreak was "under effective control." State TV also said recently anointed Premier Wen Jiabao Wednesday called for measures to "eliminate the epidemic situation in a few areas at its roots."

There was some good news. Health Ministry officials agreed to nominate Chinese doctors to WHO expert teams, and have promised to provide the WHO with daily updates on a province-by-province basis on the progress of the disease, though there was no indication of when these might begin.

For me, the most important sentence of this article is:

An account of the spread of SARS makes clear that if Chinese authorities had acted differently, the outbreak might have taken a different course and more might now be known about the disease.
It is unbelievable to me that it has only been in the last two days that China has agreed to allow WHO doctors into Guangdong. I don't especially fault the Chinese leadership for issuing calming words and urging people not to panic -- the public health authorities in Toronto did the very same thing yesterday in response to a convention cancellation and a travel warning from the government of Australia. What is unforgivable is China's refusal to cooperate fully with the international health community until so much time had passed after the seriousness of the problem had been recognized.

As of today, the WHO reports 2,270 cases of SARS to date, with 79 of those resulting in deaths. The question we have to ask -- and can never truly know -- is how many of those deaths could have been avoided had the Chinese government cooperated fully in the fight against SARS from the very first moment.

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Comments

And these are the people that are supposed to eclipse the US as the next super power? Perhaps, if their people can survive their own government. Control of information is totally at odds with the development of an information based economy. Centralization is friction to a Moore's law type technology innovation curve. My thesis is that technology in toto follows a similar curve to Moore's law - this means that the "technology gap" between advanced countries and less advanced will continue to grow in absolute terms. By attempting to control any aspect of this curve, China pushed their economies technology slope down, hence, the "technology gap" widens. Duh.

China clearly seems to believe it can have its cake and eat it, too. Who was it who said, "The Internet treats censorship as a network error and routs around it?" The Chinese government has firewalled an entire country and seems to believe either a) doing so isn't holding back their technological and/or economic progress, or b) any effects of such firewalling are acceptable given the alternative. My hunch is that you're right, David, and that eventually their constrictions on information flow will catch up with them... but I worry that they might be right... and I worry that, in the name of fighting terrorism, the US could be headed down a similar path.

That is the key issue that we face today as Americans. George W. stated that the primary role of the US Govt was to keep the citizens safe. He could not have been more wrong. The job of our govt is to keep us free - safe or not. Give me liberty or give me death - there is no compromise on this issue.

I couldn't agree more. You know, Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution tells us exactly what the president's primary duty is, and it's not keeping us safe:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
I'd have to say that President Bush has been failing miserably to uphold his oath of office.

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