Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Monday, June 09, 2003

SARS, a Valuable Lesson for Chinese Gov't to Learn

The SARS epidemic has been a salutory lesson for China. Admittedly, the spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has something to do with the initial belated reporting of the true situation and the negligence and dereliction of duty on the part of some government officials.


The SARS epidemic has been a salutory lesson for China. Admittedly, the spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has something to do with the initial belated reporting of the true situation and the negligence and dereliction of duty on the part of some government officials.

The belated, incomplete reporting resulted in the government's failure to fully carry out its duties in the initial, but crucial period of the SARS outbreak.

Modern forms of government are characterized by transparency and openness.

The Chinese Government has not, in the past, been accustomed to public disclosure of its activities.

Unfortunately a long-held but outdated conviction among many top public servants dictated that information could also cause possible social panic and disorder. Hence, information was controlled, which was just what happened at the onset of the SARS outbreak.

This outdated information control gave rise to a swarm of rumours, resulting in the very social panic those government officials and public health authorities concerned had sought to avoid by withholding such information.

Only when central government ordered local governments and public health authorities to come clean on their epidemic reporting and sacked some officials did the situation improve and public anxiety was calmed.

These facts clearly demonstrate that only by actively upholding the citizens right to know can the government be better supervised by the public and in turn win the trust and respect of those it serves.

People are made aware of government's views through the information it releases, and they exercise their rightful supervision not only through related government agencies but also through the media, which helps keep the government abreast of public opinion. Therefore, an interactive relationship among government, citizens and the media should be put in place so that the government knows the viewpoints of the people about its policies.

The current impediment to the public's views being heard by the government is that they do not have full access to a variety of information that concerns their livelihood, information that the government could make public via the mass media.

The right afforded to the media and law to supervise should be fully guaranteed.

When such a right is firmly in place, the activities of those in power come under public scrutiny, thus government and officials become publicly accountable for what they do and therefore more likely to work to higher standards.

The SARS crisis also highlighted the imperative of establishing a modern crisis management mechanism in China.

Maintaining a certain level of preparedness for any contingency is necessary to successfully deal with emergencies. When confronted with unexpected crisis, all the options for tackling it are bound to carry risks.

For example, when mulling over measures to grapple with SARS, factors such as their impact on people's lives and health, the economy, government image and social order all need to be taken into consideration.

Though making a choice becomes complex under such circumstances, the overriding guideline for making the necessary final decision is clear. That is the role of government.

The report of 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China has stressed the government must serve its people. If such a guideline is at the forefront of the minds of those in government at all levels, championing the interests and the rights of the people will be a top priority of the government.

During this SARS epidemic some officials, however, put possible economic losses ahead of people's health and safety, and, preoccupied with saving face, acted in a way that not only caused widespread public resentment, but led to the very things it had sought to avoid, namely economic loss and the ruination of their image.

The question that also needs to be asked is who should we rely on in our fight against SARS?

Although the government plays a vital role in containing the spread of the virus, the public's involvement is critical in this battle. And it has been proven that it has been the general public's contribution and sacrifice that has effected the dramatic curtailment of the spread of the disease.

The government should avoid taking all matters in hand. Instead, it should let the public know the real situation and jointly work with them to wage the war to contain the crisis.

China has paid a heavy price for this SARS epidemic, but what is certain is that it will emerge stronger from this crisis by learning these lessons. (China Daily News)

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