Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Secrecy & Stonewalling: China and SARS 1.0

China gave the WHO permission to send in investigators, but wouldn’t allow them near the affected area after they’d arrived. They departed empty-handed, two weeks later.

In November and December of 2002, a handful of people residing in Guangdong province, in southeastern China, developed serious respiratory problems. Normal medical treatments didn’t seem to work. Alarmingly, the illness spread to 7 medical personnel at one hospital. At another, 10 staff members were infected. China said nothing about this to the rest of the world.

In January 2003, more patients were hospitalized in the same region, and more medical personnel fell ill. When a woman died in a Hong Kong hospital after visiting the mainland, a request for additional information by Hong Kong health authorities was ignored. The World Health Organization (WHO) was similarly kept in the dark.

Only after the WHO started asking questions did China – on February 11 – acknowledge 305 cases, and five deaths.

On February 20th, China granted the WHO permission to send in investigators. But after they arrived in Beijing, Chinese authorities wouldn’t allow them near the affected area 1,300 miles away. They departed empty-handed, two weeks later.

Meanwhile, a doctor who’d been treating SARS patients in Guangdong traveled to Hong Kong for a wedding. Before dying in hospital there, he infected several individuals, including tourists on the same floor of his hotel who subsequently brought SARS to Canada, Singapore, and Vietnam.

In late February, Carlo Urbani, a WHO infectious disease expert based in Hanoi, raised the alert within that organization after observing how easily the virus was spreading to health care workers (he, himself, would die of SARS four weeks later, at the age of 46).

By mid-March, after a Hong Kong hospital likewise reported the infection of medical personnel, the WHO broadcast a global warning, recommended that such patients be kept isolated, and began issuing travel advisories. It named the new disease, which was caused by a new coronavirus, SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

On March 23rd, a second WHO team arrived in Beijing. Eleven days after that, on April 3rd, it was finally given access to Guangdong.

The story of SARS 1.0 is a story of secrecy and stonewalling. By China.

SARS killed approximately 1,000 people worldwide. The only deaths outside of Asia occurred in Canada, where 44 individuals lost their lives, and where the spread was limited to a few hospitals and to people who came into contact with those hospitals – as patients, visitors, staff members, and first responders.

The United States had 27 non-fatal SARS cases, Germany had 9, Australia 6, and Sweden 5. Officially, less than 8,100 people across the globe contracted that disease.

Nevertheless, SARS scared the wits out of political leaders and public health officials. In the aftermath, new international rules got written. They clearly indicate that governments have an obligation to alert the WHO sooner rather than later when something strange is going on.

But in late 2019, when another totally new coronavirus emerged in China, it was déjà vu all over again.



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