Battling SARS

Even as the war in Iraq captured headlines throughout much of the world in early April, news about another type of threat received top billing in the Asian media. But although this war—against an atypical pneumonia known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)—was of a wholly different nature from that taking place between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the language used to describe its impact was the same. Singapore’s pro-government Straits Times, for example, declared that SARS was engaged in a “shock and awe” campaign all its own (April 9).

As this magazine went to press, the World Health Organization (WHO) was reporting more than 3,000 illnesses and 170 deaths from the disease. Its impact in China and the special administrative region of Hong Kong was particularly dire, accounting for the vast majority of cases. But SARS left its mark on other states in the region—physically, psychologically, politically, and economically—as well.

Even when researchers succeeded in decoding the virus’ genes, much about it—its epicenter, its modes of transmission, and its true rate of infection—remained shrouded in confusion. But journalists throughout the region speculated that the virus had originated in unlicensed animal farms in China’s rural Guangdong province and then spread to humans.

China’s health minister discounted this theory in the government-owned Guangming Daily (April 3). “The assertion that the location where SARS cases were discovered early is the place where it originated is not correct,” he said. “The United States reported AIDS first, but we can’t say AIDS originated in the United States.”

Many faulted the Chinese for what was perceived as a lack of candor and for not being more proactive in addressing the outbreak. Indeed, the Chinese offered incomplete statistics, dragged their heels on providing visas to WHO investigators, and, until mid-April, insisted the situation was under control. Meanwhile, other states in the region were taking measures to curb the disease’s spread. Singapore, for example, convened a SARS Ministerial Committee and pledged to take the temperature of all passengers flying into the country from SARS-infected areas. Malaysia banned entry visas for Chinese tourists. Such differences in approaches were not lost on journalists. Thailand’s liberal, English-language The Nation (April 6), for example, called China and Hong Kong “the worst of the lot” in handling SARS. It continued: “Neither of that one country’s two systems could make up their minds about where their ultimate interests lie.”

Journalists in Taiwan seized the opportunity to criticize the Chinese as well, though their complaints were replete with political overtones. An editorial in the liberal, pro-independence Liberty Times (April 2) opined, “This is a good opportunity for the Taiwanese people to see the true nature of politics in China. China, by preventing Taiwan from joining the WHO, deprived us of international help in containing the infection, and has thereby shown that its claimed compassion for the Taiwanese people is a lie.” Taipei's liberal China Times pointed out (April 11) that: “Taiwan has informed the WHO of how the disease has spread and has not had any SARS deaths. China first denied WHO personnel entry to try to stop their investigation, and then concealed the disease’s spread, resulting in a sharp hike in the number of deaths.”

Hong Kong was more concerned with the economic havoc wrought by SARS than with assuming or assigning blame. “Only by winning this battle can we solve the economic problems caused by the atypical pneumonia like a knife through butter,” said an editorial in the communist Wen Wei Po (April 3).

When not parroting official information, the Chinese media tended to focus on straight news accounts of the illness. One article noted that “in Beijing, gauzes and ‘banlangen,’ a traditional Chinese medicine widely used to combat common colds, have been disappearing from the shelves...despite no authoritative unit proving that the medicine can effectively prevent the disease” (state-run China Daily, April 2).

As SARS continued to spread and Asia’s health and economic outlook remained bleak, one journalist looked to the disease for clues about how contagion works. In an article titled, “Let Ideas Spread—the SARS Way,” a writer for The Straits Times (April 5) suggested: “It is not just the Health Ministry that should be studying severe acute respiratory syndrome....After all, the way viruses like SARS spread can tell us how to spark an epidemic of ideas.”