Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The Chinese government is unlikely to handle any future disease outbreak as badly as it's dealt with the pneumonia-like virus now causing havoc in parts of Asia and elsewhere, because of the cost to its economy and reputation, according to China observers.
In rare public criticism from a U.N. body, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has chastised Beijing for its handling of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.
"Next time something strange and new comes anywhere in the world, let us come in as quickly as possible," urged WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland in an interview with the BBC.
"It would have been definitely helpful if the international expertise and WHO had been able to help at an earlier stage," she said.
Since it emerged in southern China last November, the mystery virus has spread to Hong Kong and around 17 other countries. At least 101 people in a handful of Asian countries and Canada have now died.
While the authorities in places like Hong Kong and Singapore were closing schools and invoking emergency legislation to enforce quarantines, many Chinese were not even aware of the crisis.
Until very recently state-controlled media ignored the outbreak and the extent of the spread in China was kept under wraps.
Beijing also held back on allowing a WHO team to visit the source of the outbreak, the southern Guangdong province, where the largest number of deaths has occurred.
Last week China changed tack, finally agreeing to the WHO visit, and going public with infection statistics.
Also last week, the WHO for the first time in its 55-year history, warned people to stay away from an area because of an infectious disease. The warning covers Hong Kong and Guangdong.
On Thursday, in what observers says was an unprecedented move, the director of China's Center for Disease Control, Li Liming, issued an apology in a press conference for domestic media.
"Today, we apologize to everyone," Li was quoted as saying. "Our medical departments and our mass media suffered poor coordination. We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."
And at the weekend, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper quoted Vice Premier Wu Yi as calling for "the immediate establishment of a national medical emergency mechanism, with emphasis placed on a public health information and an early warning reporting mechanism."
Experts say China was caught between its historic tendency to want to exert control and avoid public panic on the one hand, and on the other its fear that admitting the scale of the problem could affect China's international image and investor confidence.
In the end, they say, Beijing's handling of the crisis has possibly been more damaging to its reputation and economy than the outbreak itself.
Politics associate professor Paul Harris of Hong Kong's Lingnan University - an institution temporarily closed because of the SARS crisis - said Beijing was worried about the impact on investment, and its apology suggested that it would handle things differently next time.
"I think they will - China is becoming more normal all the time," he said.
Dr. Jian Yang, a Chinese professor at New Zealand's University of Auckland, also saw the apology as significant - if "a bit surprising."
"Beijing must have realized the displeasure of other countries," he said Tuesday.
"I believe Beijing from now on will be much more cooperative and responsible on this matter, partly because it does want to control the situation and partly because it wants to protect its international image."
In Yang's view, China's poor handling of the outbreak before its recent change of approach had to do with both political and economic concerns.
"Too much politics and too much money was involved. Politics means social stability. Money means visitors, investors, businessmen, conferences etc. Beijing did not want any panic."
Harris said the government's response had been "very consistent with past behavior."
It viewed widespread concern in China about SARS as "a potential source of instability."
He said he expected that Beijing's policy would undermine the government's credibility in the eyes of some Chinese.
"Press here [in Hong Kong] have reported people on the mainland saying that they won't trust anything the government says henceforth. That's of course probably an overstatement, but it suggests that times have changed and people's loyalties are not always with the government."
Yang said his conversations with family and friends in various parts of China suggested the Chinese people have paid little attention to SARS, mostly because they knew very little about it.
"We should not expect too much from the Chinese people ... the Chinese have many worries and SARS is just a new nuisance. It's unlikely that they will make a political issue out of this."
Even those who were better informed could do little more than "complain privately," he said.
Hong Kong worries
Six years ago, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule under a formula guaranteeing it relative autonomy for 50 years. The territory is governed by an administration under a chief executive, chosen by an electoral college appointed by China.
Before Beijing changed direction on SARS last week, it saw the situation in Hong Kong as evidence of why a transparent policy was dangerous.
Chinese officials were reported to have criticized Hong Kong's authorities for their relative openness about the disease, saying the resulting panic was precisely what should be avoided.
In fact, many residents in Hong Kong have found their authorities' handling of the outbreak - especially at the beginning - to be ham-handed and reactive.
While Singapore moved quickly to shutting down schools, for instance, the Hong Kong government only followed suit after parents themselves started keeping their children at home as a precaution.
Harris, who lives and works in the territory, questioned the government's approach.
"For a long time it told us not to worry. Of course nobody believed this. Then it shifted to giving out lots of concrete information about the disease and how to avoid it. Again, nobody believed it because we were being told in the media and from the WHO that the experts really don't know much. Now it's every man for himself, I think."
Harris said wherever he went in Hong Kong, most people were wearing surgical masks.
This was despite the fact there was no evidence they provide any protection if worn by a healthy person. The masks may, however, "help protect others if worn by the sick."
The city's usually bustling, noisy streets were also much quieter than usual, he said.
Of the 101 SARS deaths reported, at least 23 have occurred in Hong Kong.
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