SARS Seen as Agent of Change Across Asia

The regional outbreak of se­vere acute respiratory syndrome has not only undermined the health security of affected countries but transformed the political and economic dynamics of the entire region, an international political and financial expert said Wednesday.

“East Asia cannot close its borders. It will be disastrous,” said Dr Eric Teo, a visiting lecturer at the University of Cambodia and a member of the Singapore Par­liamentary Committee on De­fense and Foreign Affairs.

An upsurge of regional co­operation and heightened governmental transparency and accountability—prompted by the SARS outbreak—mark a dramatic wave of political and behavioral change washing over East Asia, Teo said. It is the third wave to hit the region in the past two decades.

East Asia’s political and economic climates have been transformed by two other major events: The globalization of information, technology and finance following the collapse of the former Soviet Union; and the 1997 to 1998 economic crisis, Teo said.

The advent of SARS heralds a new way of governing—and being governed.

Political transparency has surged throughout affected countries, particularly China, a country which has a government that is not known for candor, Teo said.

“The whole idea of coming clean would not have been possible if the new wave of transparency didn’t come with SARS,” Teo said. In the early stages of China’s SARS outbreak, the government did not report cases of the atypical pneumonia and later underreported numbers. In an unusual assault on the government, China’s media criticized the government both in print and on the Internet, Teo said. “China is going through a political revolution.”

A historic change in China’s governmental accountability was seen when military hospitals, which initially did not report any cases of SARS, were ordered to abide by the same standards as public hospitals.

After recognizing how pervasive the SARS problem was, China’s central government made swift changes, opening up to criticism even the most elite members of society, Teo said.

The quick lessons China learned in transparency and accountability mark a new style of political governance, one that has and must trickle down throughout the region, Teo said.

To prevent and contain the disease that has killed more than 700 people and sickened more than 8,000 across the globe, governments have been forced to become savvy in the art of public relations, Teo said.

“SARS can’t be contained in the parliamentary room,” Teo said. “You need the people to be 100 percent with the government.”

Cambodia has yet to receive a reported case of SARS. However, the Ministry of Health has also stepped up efforts to communicate with the general public about the disease. Issuing frequent press releases and holding informative seminars and press conferences, the ministry has called on the public to cooperate in the detection of cases.

Thirteen suspected SARS patients have been reported to the government, but none of them have turned out to be SARS.

“[SARS] has strengthened and improved the habit of communicating with the press,” said the World Health Organization’s Dr Severin Von Xylander. More than its effect on the government’s policy of political frankness, SARS has traumatized Cambodia’s economy, Von Xylander said.

China, again, may be the standard against which other countries may measure the economic impact of SARS, Teo said.

China, which has relied heavily on exports to fuel its economy, is realizing the effects of domestic consumerism. Fear of SARS has paralyzed many consumers in their homes, proving that spenders are the bedrock of the Chinese economy, Teo said, adding that countries throughout the region will feel China’s economic crunch.

Teo’s speech is the first of the University of Cambodia’s distinguished lecture series. He is a Resource Panel Member of the Singapore Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs and the Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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