SARS, Taiwan and the World Health Organization
Delivered in Plenary - May 15th 2003
It remains to be seen how serious the growing threat of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome will become, but Taiwan has already demonstrated a willingness to respond expeditiously to the outbreak, in full cooperation with the WHO. This contrasts favourably with the abysmal response of the authorities in Beijing, whose first response was to find refuge in denial, misinformation and obfuscation. That response led quite rightly to the resignation of China's health minister and to the open admission by the Chinese Government of the seriousness of the outbreak. Nevertheless, Chinese television has so far found it impossible to ask the kind of searching questions which one would expect in a Western democracy.
Sadly, China remains a secretive, repressive, Communist state in spite of free market reforms. Already there is talk of a new glasnost in China. That change is to be welcomed. The initial reaction of the people has been shock and disillusionment, but in time China will be stronger for its openness. Greater honesty with its people and greater debate will help China realise its enormous potential. An attempt to go back to the old ways would simply hinder that process. China can also learn from Taiwan in cooperating fully with the WHO, whilst observer status in its assembly for Taiwan will be of great benefit not only to the organisation itself but also to China.
Cooperation is the politics of the future. We should also reflect in Europe on the need to give powers to public health authorities to contain those with the disease, so that any mass outbreak in Europe can be effectively contained.
In that respect, I have to say with regret that the British Government appears to have followed the example of China's former health minister by pretending there is no problem to deal with in our country. We have a right to expect better than that from our elected representatives and their officials.