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SARS as metaphor: a tale of two epidemics
April 25, 2003
The SARS epidemic has an interesting sidelight. While it is one of the biggest pandemics in recent years, the way the epidemic has been covered up holds up a mirror to the way China functions. I have been saying for years, for example in a column on the likely collapse of the Chinese economy, (http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/jul/26rajeev.htm) that the lack of transparency in China creates a remarkable state of make believe: society as theatre. Alas, you can't fool all the people all the time: the SARS epidemic is a metaphor of the flaws in the Chinese system.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is the latest killer disease though it's less frightening than others: AIDS, Ebola, Legionnaire's Disease, mad cow disease and its human equivalent, Kreuzfeld Jakob Disease. The medical community has seemed unable to handle these using their normal methods. Nature, it appears, is reacting to human population growth by evolving diseases faster than we can keep up: these new pandemics may simply be a natural population control mechanism.
They have some features in common:
SARS is likely to have originated in China's teeming Canton (now Guangdong) province, where people live in close proximity to farm animals, and their consumption patterns (they tend to eat anything that walks, runs, swims or crawls) may have made it easier for some trans-species mutation to occur. I have observed first hand the lengths to which they go, and squeamish readers should probably skip the next two paragraphs.
In a night market in a Chinese city, I once watched with horrified fascination while a street vendor casually took a thin, harmless-looking rat snake out of a cage filled with a writhing mass of other snakes, and banged its head against a tabletop to stun it. He then attached its head to a clothesline with a large clothes peg. It hung like a thick rope, motionless, stunned.
Then the man took out a sharp knife, grasped the snake's tail, and sliced it vertically with a single, fluid motion. His assistant carefully caught the snake's blood in a glass as it writhed in its death throes, suddenly awakened. A bystander bought the glass of snake blood and drank it down neat. Another bought the snake's gall bladder or penis, I couldn't tell which. And soon enough, the rest of its body was chopped up for soup.
No wonder the Economist says, 'Southern China is a notorious crucible for infection,' noting that a major outbreak of avian influenza originated there in 1997. 'Though it is not certain where the great flu pandemic of 1918 started, many of the lesser flu epidemics that now appear every couple of years are known to originate in China. There are reasons for this: people living cheek by jowl, and in close proximity to pigs and poultry, animals from which this type of virus is thought to jump to humans.'
In 1994, there was an alleged outbreak of the bubonic plague (or was it the pneumonic plague? I don't know the difference, I admit) in Surat in western India. Says Scientific American magazine, http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000272EC-06B0-1C73-9B81809EC588EF21 '…while international airlines doused their planes with pesticide, Sudan jailed all travelers from India for six days, China barred Indians, period, and WHO waffled, how big --really -- was the outbreak of plague in Surat? Several thousand cases or fewer than a hundred? The truth is, we'll never know.'
In the end, it turned out that the so called plague in India was an exaggeration: it wasn't an epidemic, but for a while, everyone and his brother saw it fit to treat India like a pariah. In particular, the global media had a field day with veiled and not so veiled insinuations about how barbaric and unclean India is. The contempt and disdain were palpable. But in the end, Surat cleaned up, and business is booming there.
What galled me most was that little Lebanon, a country that India supported through its years of troubles, was the first to impose a blanket ban on all goods from India. The ever-pleasant Chinese 'banned Indians, period.' So I might be permitted a little Schadenfreude, mild glee at another's misfortune, now that the shoe is on the other foot.
The so-called plague epidemic and the SARS epidemic are excellent metaphors for how the two Asian giants work. India is an incredibly transparent society, which is vilified far more than it deserves to be by the global media, and especially by its own often startlingly anti national media. So any bad news about India gets enormous airplay, while the reality is usually less fearsome.
China, on the other hand, is opaque, concerned about 'losing face,' and prone to the usual Marxist tactic of lying on a gross scale. Its media, either cowed by State pressure or instinctively jingoistic because of large scale brainwashing, will not question the 'Emperor's New Clothes' fantasies churned out by Xinhua. Western media, for reasons best known to them, also participate in this willing suspension of disbelief.
The extent of this delusion would be entertaining if it weren't worrisome. I was amused to see an overseas Chinese some time ago suggesting that China should force the rest of the world to trade with it in renminbi/yuan, thus supplanting the US dollar as the currency of global trade! Chutzpah they do have in large supply.
But the interesting thing is the serious hit that China has taken as a result of this epidemic, which one might consider somewhat mild in the scheme of things: after all, only 5% of those afflicted actually die of the disease. But the extent to which it has affected business in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia point out how vulnerable China's much bandied about 'miracle economy' is. And India may well be the clear winner in contrast.
The Times of India ran a story on 'India one up on SARS hit China' on April 16, as fund managers like Merrill Lynch are downgrading China. The Economist reported also on April 16 ('Not only bad for your health') that the rating agency Standard & Poor's believes the Chinese economy would lose up to 0.5% of its GDP growth this year, and that SARS is affecting East Asia more than the war in Iraq.
Nike has contingency plans to move its production out of China. Motorola has restricted travel to affected areas, while Honda is moving the families of its expatriates out of China. Wal Mart has banned all travel to China. Cathay Pacific has been forced to ground much of its fleet due to rampant cancellations; other Asian airlines are affected. The tourist flow into East Asia, one of the region's major money earners, has been curtailed dramatically. The Canton Trade Fair, usually the single largest trade show in China, is effectively dead this year.
All in all, SARS will affect China badly. I believe the collapse of the Chinese economy will come about exactly the same way. The mandarins, reminiscent of Dutch boys with their fingers in dikes, will try to censor all the bad news. Like the brave 71-year-old Beijing doctor, there will be some brave souls who blow the whistle. But the tsunami of bad debts and fake economic statistics is likely to drown them all. The end for China's Marxists will come with a bang, not with a whimper.