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A Lesson for China in SARS

April 16, 2003

Nothing would wreck China's integration into the world economy as thoroughly as failure to contain severe acute respiratory syndrome, the killer flu-like disease first seen in Guangdong, a southern province.

As UC Berkeley China scholar Orville Schell put it, "The notion that there are still some aspects of China's 'internal affairs' that can be kept aloof from foreign intrusion is under assault. If there was ever an apt metaphor for one-worldism, it is the interconnectedness of world health."

China wouldn't be alone in the wreckage, considering the dependence of California high-tech and other businesses on Chinese manufacturing plants.

Though SARS is believed to have emerged last November in Guangdong, a thriving center for foreign investment and export industries, Chinese leaders did not publicly acknowledge its existence until two months ago. Even then, they said everything was "under control."

Officials repeated that false reassurance as recently as Sunday, and until April 3 they barred infectious disease experts from the World Health Organization from traveling freely in China. There is still suspicion that Beijing is concealing SARS cases in military hospitals.

The price for this failure is emerging. Travel to Asia is shattered. There are reports of thousands of attendee cancellations at a manufacturing trade show, usually among the world's largest, in Guangdong's chief city, Guangzhou.

If China had been more open, epidemiologists might have imposed a quarantine early on, preventing its spread by airline passengers. In a striking reversal, Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday said: "Since the discovery of the SARS cases, I feel very worried. I feel anxious for the masses." One of his deputies apologized for the secrecy.

World leaders, starting with President Bush, should push for more than apologies. The problem is not just China and not just SARS, even though if unchecked the disease conceivably could prove to be as dangerous as any weapon of mass destruction. Future full cooperation on global health issues is the real goal.

Congress could help by passing a bill by Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) that authorizes $150 million over the next two years for a project to start infectious disease reporting systems in developing nations.

This year, China plans to launch a manned spacecraft, another signal of emerging world-power status. It joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. But the opening of China's brawny economy to comply with WTO rules has to be joined with other forms of transparency, including in public health. The two, as SARS proves, are not separate.

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