International Papers

SARS: The New Enemy

As papers around the world scale back their coverage of the war in Iraq, a new enemy is emerging to fill the vacated column inches: severe acute respiratory syndrome, which as of Wednesday has killed 161 worldwide and sickened 3,235 people in 22 countries. Last week, the International Herald Tribune’s Philip Bowring categorized the three stages of the illness, which, he said, “resembles the mad cow disease scare that swept Europe three years ago—reaction out of proportion to the danger”: “First there was denial, then sluggish response—and now irrational fear. … The denial was in China, where the disease appears to have originated, the sluggish response was by Hong Kong and the fear has spread worldwide.” The op-ed said the general public had overreacted to the SARS threat, with several countries placing restrictions on travelers to and from affected regions: “Warning against visiting Hong Kong and Guangdong seems curious when there are more widespread or virulent infectious diseases abroad in the tourist havens of Southeast Asia such as dengue fever and encephalitis.”

This weekend, China’s most senior politicians traveled to Guandong province, where the disease originated, a move described by the South China Morning Post as an attempt to push the disease onto the national agenda. On Sunday, Prime Minister Wen Jianbao contradicted the Chinese government’s previous claims that the virus was “under control” when he admitted the crisis was “grave.” Officials also acknowledged that they had delayed reporting SARS’ arrival in Beijing in early March because they feared it would disrupt the annual session of the National People’s Congress—”the usual reasons of providing political stability and maintaining economic growth,” according to the SCMP. The Financial Times said foreign diplomats believed China’s “slightly more transparent line” on SARS reflects a “realisation that the previous blithe assurances were scaring more potential foreign visitors than they were reassuring.” Still, the SCMP declared, “So far, the Chinese leaders [have] not shown the decisiveness of former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev in handling the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant crisis, despite the desire by officials for greater transparency.”

In Hong Kong, where, according to official World Health Organization figures, there have been 1,268 diagnosed cases and 61 deaths, the South China Morning Post said, “The view down the tunnel of Sars is a bleak one indeed. Hong Kong people find themselves living in communities beset by fear and anxiety as the toll of infection and death rises.” Still, the paper added, the city’s residents have displayed an admirable sense of civic responsibility in fighting the disease. Doctors and nurses have been “as brave as any soldiers in battle,” as have the hospital orderlies, cooks, and cleaners who turn up to work each day, despite the risk of infection. An SCMP commentator called SARS “the ugly side of globalisation,” a disease whose transmission was “facilitated by the international mobility that most of us take for granted.” It represents Southeast Asia’s most serious problem since the 1997-98 financial crisis and “has had a far worse impact than the war on Iraq.” Hong Kong must clean up its act, said the SCMP, “Hygiene has suddenly become a huge issue … and with one of the world’s most densely packed cities, Hong Kong can no longer afford to be less than squeaky clean when it comes to public and private spaces.”

With somewhere between 100 and 300 probable or suspected cases and 13 SARS deaths so far, mostly in Ontario, Canada faces both public health and economic difficulties. At least four governments, including Australia’s and Ireland’s, urged citizens to postpone trips to Canada; several companies have advised their employees not to visit Toronto; and SARS panic led to the cancellation of some large conferences and conventions in the city. On Wednesday, Ontario health officials admitted that their failure to quarantine members of a religious group may have allowed the disease to spread. Five hundred members of the group are now in quarantine, with around 30 known to have the disease. The city’s medical officer admitted that they had underestimated the amount of social interaction in the community, were afraid they would be accused of overkill, and didn’t want the group, made up largely of Filipinos, to feel they were being singled out because of their ethnicity. Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported that in order to reduce the spread of SARS, this Easter weekend “Roman Catholic leaders announced that sacramental wine won’t be sipped from a shared chalice, the sign of peace will be shared with a nod instead of a handshake and communion wafers will be placed in a parishioner’s hand, not on their tongue.” Toronto’s Anglican Protestants will continue to share the communion cup, but pastors were requested “to wash their hands thoroughly before distributing communion and to carefully wipe the chalice between each parishioner.”