Conspiracies of silence

A biological war is in progress and the coalition called the international community is ill-prepared to wage it. Even as President Bush proposes to spend $15 billion combating the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the Caribbean, a new, sometimes fatal strain of pneumonia appears out of South China and Hong Kong, with no known medical cure.

It is called SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome. The known number of those infected as of early this week was well over 4,000 in 25 countries.

For China, this is like Tiananmen 1989 all over again - people dying and the government lying. Fearful of the effects on foreign investment, perhaps even on the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing government, from the time of the first known outbreak last November, engaged in a massive cover-up, reporting only 10 percent of the known cases. Some patients were sent into hiding in military hospitals. For some time, the World Health Organization was barred from coming in to see what was happening.

In the end, the coverup blew up. And last Sunday, two top officials, the mayor of Beijing and the minister of health, were fired - scapegoats for the widespread conspiracy of silence. China was not alone. Even in Canada the government was criticized for delays in reporting and acting on new cases.

New disease strains spreading rapidly from person to person and country to country are, in part, an effect of this age of interconnectedness, a time of easy travel and gregarious habits. Governments are slow to address the threat of epidemics with the color-coded sense of urgency that attends the war on terrorism.

Governments, fearing the loss of tourists and investment, are tempted to conceal the dimensions of infection, thus potentially accelerating the spread of disease. One cannot say how many lives would have been saved by quarantines and precautions about public gatherings if the Chinese government had been upfront from the start.

The situation may well call for a strengthened World Health Organization with a system of sanctions and with powers of inspection to cope with this plague without borders.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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