On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Govts must be open about health issues

Shutting down information and pretending SARS doesn't
exist has not only caused many lives to be lost but has put millions of
mainland Chinese at risk.

The impact is being felt three months later as more countries are being hit by
SARS as a result of international travel. Even countries in Europe and South
America have reported suspected cases.

But as both nations deal with SARS, another fight is taking place at the
diplomatic level. China is trying to salvage its image, with Health Minister
Zhang Wenkang appearing regularly on television to talk about the precautions
and successes in curbing the virus.

Newly appointed Premier Wen Jiabao has also spoken about a ''national emergency
mechanism'' to fight the killer virus, as well as taking a more honest approach
toward the public.

Taiwan – in the classic case of seeing an opportunity in a crisis – has
launched a campaign to seek international support to gain observer's status in
the World Health Organisation.

It has complained that it sought help from WHO to diagnose and treat three
suspected SARS cases but was refused, evidently because of objections from
China. When Taiwan withdrew from the United Nations in 1971, it also lost its
WHO membership that is part of the UN administration.

It has tried every year to gain observer's status, but is blocked by China and
the majority of members of the World Health Assembly because of the ''one-China

Besides losing out on benefits enjoyed by members, Taiwan claims it cannot
effectively share its health-related experiences and resources with the
international community.

With plenty of money at its disposal, Taiwan has pointed out that from 1995 to
2002, it donated over US$120mil in relief to the international community in 78
countries spanning five continents.

Taiwan, understandably, has cried foul, saying China's stand was a form of
''health apartheid'' as politics should not be a factor in health treatment,
particularly when human lives are involved.

Politics aside, the reality is that as the pace of globalisation quickens and
the spread of infectious disease becomes critical, the world must re-look the
way it handles health cases.

In over three months, a disease has spread speedily and infected people around
the world. The SARS disease will not just hit humans but also affect the
economy of many countries, particularly those who depend on tourism.

Political barriers should not be used to fight health threats. What is required
is the collective effort of all countries, regardless of their political
allegiance. The sharing of information has become more urgent.

The dissemination of relevant data, technology and other resources to monitor,
prevent and respond to SARS is of great urgency now as travelling becomes
easier. Countries must always be a step ahead and political motivations should
not be allowed to get in the way of fighting the epidemic.

The SARS issue should also be a lesson to those in government – when vital
information about a deadly disease is kept away from the public, it will soon
become a bigger problem for the government.

The value of a responsive and accountable government must be valued and Acting
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi must be commended for insisting
that the Cabinet would be open.