Censorship cannot control epidemics. As the true picture regarding the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome in China is beginning to make itself known to the rest of an increasingly panicking world, the extent of deliberate misinformation kept up by a totalitarian state is also coming to light. China has now sacked its health minister and the mayor of Beijing. But these symbolic punishments could hardly make a difference to the gravely inadequate public health and information systems in the country. It needed a lone doctor in a military hospital to bring to public notice the actual grimness of the situation. Most of the urban and provincial institutions in which the Chinese SARS patients are being treated happen to be military hospitals. But for more than four months there has been no coordination at all between the military and the municipal information systems within this immense and populous country. As a result, people in the cities and provinces have been kept in the dark about the actual situation and its dangers. This is not simply a question of ineptitude or ignorance, but also one of active suppression and distortion of information by the state. The ordinary people of China, the World Health Organization and the foreign media have until recently been fed severely underplayed statistics regarding the spread of the infection and number of deaths. Figures released by the government have been about a tenth of the real count. National press conferences and media reports have been keeping up the most brazen air of denial and disregard, bureaucratically hindering most attempts at independent investigation and reporting .
It is not the first time that this is happening in China. The country’s attitude to its HIV/AIDS scenario has been quite similar. In fact, there is now a serious danger that the failure to segregate AIDS and SARS patients in some of the poorer provincial hospitals in south China could result in a worse sort of epidemic. What Mr Amartya Sen has said about famines and democracies could also be applied to such outbreaks. Democratic institutions like an uncensored and active news media, free elections, opposition parties and unfettered public criticism keep the state on its toes, making it a lot more difficult for such things as famines and epidemics to happen. There seems to have been in China a failure of decisive public action as well — not just actions for the public but also action by the public. This can also be seen as a crisis of transparency, accountability, and ultimately one of democratic liberties.