SARS as a Lesson in Globalisation

Cracked the other day by Canadian scientists, the genetic code of the virus responsible for atypical pneumonia, or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome /SARS/, will help medics to find the origins of the new pestilence and how to treat it successfully.

But it is already evident that the new virus has given mankind several lessons of a purely political character, demonstrating from an unexpected angle but very graphically some traits of what is called the world order.

These lessons concern mostly the country where the epidemic originated - China. It so transpired that for the new Chinese leadership led by Hu Jintao not so much the Iraqi crisis as the SARS epidemic proved to be its first litmus test, especially in international politics.

The new Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, has made a statement that China is quite able to stop the spread of the disease, which has already affected 3,000 people in 18 countries, with more than 100 lethal outcomes.

China is indeed the main country in controlling the epidemic, if only because more than half of the cases are reported from there.

The most-discussed issue now is not China's ability to deal with the disease single-handed, but on the contrary, the mistakes made by the Chinese authorities in informing the international community - and its own too - of the real facts. The first cases were registered in southern Guangdong Province in mid-November of last year, but it was not until February that information reached the World Health Organisation /WHO/ and it was not until April 2 that medical specialists were able to reach Guangdong and start an investigation.

The question of telling the world of the trouble that hit China proved for the country's leadership as political as formerly the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in the USSR. That it occurred when the leadership was changing at all levels - from November to March - proved the complicating factor. But not the sole one.

"The stark reality demands from authorities to give clear information so that the public knew of the situation and could take measures," says the English-language China Daily, which also reports that initially the authorities even feared informing Beijing of what was happening. At the same time, Li Liming, head of the all-Chinese centre for infectious diseases, apologised in public to the world for the efforts of the country's medical authorities and mass media being "poorly coordinated." Several millennia of Chinese culture have created in the country a tradition of withholding information from the rest of the world, especially when it concerns unpleasant things. For centuries the Chinese have tried to solve their problems themselves and asked no one for help. But now Chinese society is coming round to the conviction that if the authorities had from the outset defied these traditions, China and the world would have escaped many disturbing things.

The new Chinese leadership has been given a very serious lesson and a very palpable one. Estimates are likely to be made, but sums involved are certain to reach billions of dollars. Off are business trips not only of Chinese but also of Japanese, Singaporean, and Taiwanese businessmen to the American continent. Such giants as General Motors or Wall-Mart have prohibited their staff to travel to Asia in general. Malaysia has stopped issuing visas to Chinese tourists. Also hit will be the powerful Chinese tourism industry, where 80 to 90 million people travel to various provinces on holidays.

This is known as a panic. Panic is irrational, because it is based on the lack of complete and credible information.

The unknown is feared the most. Only now, in April, has it become known that the epidemic - statistically - is on the decline, that the disease is not absolutely lethal. Its mortality rate does not exceed 4 per cent, as from any pneumonia. The most complex thing is to diagnose the disease from such fairly common symptoms as fever combined with dry cough and laboured breathing. The subsequent modern treatment, mainly with oxygen, does the trick.

And although it is not yet understood how the disease spreads, it is obvious that with the virus cracked genetically, the situation will revert to the normal soon.

It may be noted that WHO professionals do not recommend going only to the epicentre of the epidemic - Guangdong - and neighbouring Hong Kong. If international experts had started sorting out the epidemic in November-December, today the number of patients would have been fewer, and their treatment would have been more successful, and China would have suffered less from the international panic. In the age of globalisation, epidemics, like terrorism, can cross borders with unprecedented speed, and to control them requires new techniques calling for such international cooperation which but recently seemed inconceivable.

Incidentally, it was this new logic, the logic of understanding global links due to common problems, that has had its impact on the course of the not quite ended Iraqi crisis. No matter how far were in recent weeks the positions held by the US and France, Britain and China, and so on, all politicians together saw it well that a new split of the world into opposing blocs is simply impossible, because most of the problems will still have to be solved together.

Control of the new epidemic is only one additional example of that. The "Chinese" epidemic is being fought in many countries. US and Canadian authorities have, for example, recently held a joint meeting with representatives of medical companies producing vaccines. American army laboratories /USAMRIID/, bearing relation to bacteriological warfare, are testing the Chinese virus for resistance to numerous medical components available to this agency. In Singapore, scientists are developing diagnostic tests able to separate a simple cold from SARS. And WHO experts, including those cooperating with the Chinese authorities, are trying locally to determine the point of origin of the new virus and how it began to spread among the population.

In the ultimate analysis, the "Chinese virus" is far from being the last in those that may cause international problems. And the Chinese authorities, cooperating with the whole world in detective work against the new enemy, are also participating in the testing of few procedures which will next time work against a new threat automatically. If it is found out in passing that this would require global initiatives to improve the health services in China or, for example, in Africa, all the better. This is a worthy application for money and such globalisation would hardly cause resentment.

Author`s name Petr Ernilin