The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- SARS raises questions about democracy and crisis management in Asia

The severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic sweeping across eastern and southeastern Asia raises important questions about democracy and crisis management. There is no denying that Chinese secrecy aggravated the problem. Even in late February, when I was in Shanghai and Beijing, I noticed people with a strip of gauze across the mouth rather like Jains. I wonder now if my tour guides were really ignorant or just playing dumb when they murmured vaguely about visiting villagers dreading big-city smells.

Clearly, China did not come clean for at least four months. But it might be asked whether full public disclosure would not have spread panic in a land that, like India, has no medical cover for 800 million illiterate peasants, and no database either. Would the riots that have now broken out in several towns and provinces not been far worse if newspapers had earlier been allowed to publish alarmist headlines like the Wen Wei Po’s “The whole Chinese nation is in crisis”' The dismissals of the health minister, Beijing’s mayor and several high officials have been widely reported. Arguably, the entire political boat might have capsized if such drastic action had been taken before the April 17 politburo meeting.

The closure of primary and secondary schools affects 1.37 million Chinese children. That is a serious matter and must cause concern to many parents. Taiwanese medical workers have refused to obey orders that might expose them to infection. The police in Taiwan refuse to lock up criminals who are suspected of being SARS carriers in their police stations. Singapore has imposed severe fines and prison sentences on people who flout orders confining them to their home. Invigilating at a Singapore university examination, I had to have my temperature taken and then write it on a sticker on my shirt. I also had to wear a mask.

The movement of migrant workers has to be monitored, taxis forced to keep windows open at the cost of air-conditioning, SARS patients in hospitals are not allowed visitors. Zealous civil rights activists might regard some of these rules as infringement of personal liberty. They might argue that the firm (and necessary) remedial action that has earned Singapore praise from the World Health Organization and the pernickety Swiss is not sanctioned by the tenets of John Stuart Mill. There is scope here for conflict between Western individualism and Confucianist communitarianism.

On the other hand, this is not the first time that disaster has been blamed on the lack of transparency. Amartya Sen’s famous thesis is that though Mao Zedong was committed to eliminating hunger, between 23 million and 30 million people died in the 1958-61 famine because “the lack of a political opposition and absence of an independent critique from the media” prevented Beijing from drawing the right lessons from the disastrous failure of China’s Great Leap Forward.

Apart from its intrinsic importance, Sen gives three reasons for regarding free speech and communication as crucial. First, the information role of a free press in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny. Second, the protective function of press freedom in giving voice to the neglected and disadvantaged, and thus providing greater human security. Third, the constructive contribution of free public discussion in shaping values and in the emergence of shared public standards that are central to social justice.

It adds up to what is called feedback. Sen says that without it, Mao’s government believed at the peak of the famine that it had 100 million more metric tons of grain than it actually had. He similarly blames the 1943 Bengal famine, which he remembers, on censorship compounded by British India’s lack of demo- cracy. The authorities did not bestir themselves until graphic accounts appeared in print.

The power of publicity received strong support recently from a Chinese scientist, Niu Wenyuan, who helped to set up a social stability predetermination and early warning system. “With bad information, policy-makers cannot make wise decisions,” Niu claims. His argument is that the social factors that led to the Tiananmen Square protest surfaced at least four months earlier. Timely attention might have averted the massacre of June 4, 1989.

There can be no disputing the general rule that press freedom is vital for development and that rulers must take the ruled into confidence. Good governance is based on full information. Voters have to know what their rulers are about. The absence of transparency permits all those abuses that militate against general growth and enrich only the corruptly privileged few. In times like this, candour alone justifies tough measures and makes them acceptable to a populace that is by nature sceptical.

Openness is also necessary to put an end to wild rumours. Malaysia, which fears a reduction of its 13 million tourists, had to reassure the ethnic Chinese that they are not regarded as being especially prone to SARS. Many Singaporeans subscribe to the fallacy that Indians are immune. Other myths are that pork spreads the disease, and that tobacco and alcohol are antidotes. Suspended flights and the refusal of some hospitals to take SARS patients speak of panic.

The need for candour goes beyond epidemics. Transparency is not only an instrument of crisis management. It should also inform government policy all the time in a democracy. The invasion of Iraq is a case in point. Last September, the vice-president of the United States of America, Dick Cheney, accused Saddam Hussein of “actively and aggressively” trying to make nuclear bombs. Though Iraq has been overrun, the world is still waiting for Cheney to substantiate his charge. A month later, George W. Bush announced that Iraq’s growing fleet of unmanned aircraft could be used “for missions targeting the US”. Again, Was- hington’s credibility demands evidence to prove (a) the existence of such a fleet, and (b) the intent to use it against the US.

Nor is China alone in practising what the Vienna-based International Press Institute criticizes as the “culture of secrecy.” Fearing loss of face or the political and economic consequences of adverse publicity, many governments try to suppress bad news, whether cholera or corruption. The former Soviet Union was notorious in this respect. Its desperate efforts to conceal earthquakes resulted in even higher losses of life and property. Moscow’s secretiveness ended only in 1986 when, pursuing glasnost or openness, Mikhail Gorbachev overruled Communist officials and threw open the Chernobyl nuclear plant to global scrutiny.

A responsible government cannot function in a vacuum. It must enjoy consent, which implies consultation. It must respond constructively to democratic pressure. That is where the media comes in. Chinese newspapers have certainly become vocal about SARS, which suggests that China has learnt its lesson. With more than 400 deaths, more than 6,000 sufferers and more than 15,000 people quarantined in Beijing alone, the China Daily no longer blames SARS reports on “an anti-China clique”. The People’s Daily does not dismiss all such reports as “malicious”.

But as resistance to stringent new health measures stiffens in the countryside and even some townspeople take the law into their own hands and force people into quarantine, the crisis might seem to be one of too much democracy. People have been refusing to allow schools to be converted into hospital wards; they have even dug up highways to keep out potential carriers of the disease. Can the path of democracy lead to anarchy'

There is a moral here that may not be palatable to everyone. It is that democracy has its limitations. It must come to terms with physical reality. Yes, citizens must be able to choose their leaders and unseat them when necessary. But only education, a reasonable living standard and a social welfare support system can make that fundamental right meaningful. Democratic choice serves a mainly symbolic purpose unless people can exercise it with wisdom and discretion. Man may not live by bread only, but he does not live at all without bread.

Email This Page