Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Blast from the Past: SARS and Bird Flu

I wrote in a previous post that Taiwan was surprisingly successful in fighting SARS. An anonymous poster wrote in the comments:

Da-Bien sat with his thumbs up his ass and pointed his fingers at Hong Kong and China while doing NOTHING at home. Then the infections hit!

I was there. I rememebred it. Locals running out to 7-11 during quarantine, the infection spreading. Doctors refusing to treat patients.

Stepping past the hysterical obsession with Chen Shui-bian, whom the more childish among the mainlanders have nicknamed "Da-Bian" (poop), I too once felt the same way. Here's a fatalistic article I wrote two years ago for a now defunct website called East Cathay...


Last month my wife and I were taking the family out to dinner at a local restaurant. As the stoplight turned green, a city bus roared out into the intersection through the red light. It had run down a long line of cars patiently waiting for the light to change by speeding past them in the lane for oncoming traffic. It careered into the intersection like a drunken whale, and we watched in disgust as it made a right turn across three lanes of traffic (including, as always, a lane of cars illegally lined up in the far righthand parking and motorcycle lanes), and then lurched to a halt at the stop to disgorge its cargo of junior high school students. "See?" spat my Taiwanese wife in frustration as we slammed on the brakes, "this is why we will never stop SARS here."

Life in the world of SARS. To outsiders it must seem like Taiwan has gone completely batty, but then completely batty is the norm here. In a society where civic-mindedness is weak and "me-first" is the dynamism that propels national growth, SARS is like a giant hand that has lifted the stone to expose the ants scurrying beneath. Practically everything that is normal and habitual in Chinese culture, from spitting on the street to ignoring the law to relying on luck and fate, facilitates SARS. The virus could hardly have found a better society to incubate if it had been given eternity and the entire planet to chose from.

My wife, and my kids haven't really curtailed our lifestyle too much. At my wife's insistence, we wear masks when we go out, and wash our hands with disinfectants, but we still go out. Business is down, but it is hard to tell whether SARS or the declining economy is the culprit. The restaurants are empty, little museums of Taiwanese night life, where the staff play Mah-jong and exchange rumors about competitors who have already gone under. Every day the news brings reports of another round of political bickering, stories of official incompetence, hoarding, and defiance of quarantine. Last month the papers reported with great indignation that more than 40% of those quarantined were ignoring the order. High placed officials are leading the way: several of the first cases were influential doctors who had treated SARS patients in the hospitals and then ignored quarantines to see patients at the private clinics they operated. Draconian punishments were threatened but were, as always in local society, not carried out. Law enforcement in Taiwan is something that is often heard, but rarely seen.

Despite the morbid predictions on all sides, humorous moments still lighten our SARS life. The other day a KTV hostess was admitted to the hospital in the large city of Kaohsiung with SARS-like symptoms. Much to everyone's horror, the lung x-rays showed the telltale white spots. As a KTV hostess she had been in enclosed rooms at length with scores of people. Somehow a smart radiologist checked the charts and the young woman was forced to publicly confess that her bosom had received a little artificial stimulus, said implants being the cause of the white spots. No doubt it was the first time in history there was public relief that someone had undergone breast augmentation.

Taiwan is in the international spotlight, and its image has suffered. One issue that has angered me is the coverage in the foreign news. A nasty-minded article in the Los Angeles Times managed to imply that the government here was violating local civil rights by enforcing quarantine regulations through highly selective quoting and examples. Apparently the illiterate who wrote it had never heard of her own government's Patriot Act, which would have been right at home here in the martial law era. Another article in the Washington Post said that President Chen's government had done a poor job combatting SARS. The writer hadn't done the proper research. Hoping Hospital, at the center of the outbreak, had been run by the opposition KMT, the former ruling party, and was already famous for its obstructionist tactics even before its incompetence and procrastination helped spur the SARS outbreak. Most upsetting of all, the WHO, so courageous in confronting disease germs, showed an utter lack of moral courage in confronting China over SARS in Taiwan.

Still, the beat goes on. A Taiwanese doctor, fresh from treating SARS patients, decided to take a vacation in Japan. Fortunately nobody got SARS. A scholar from the Academia Sinica broke quarantine and traveled around Asia. The head of the Academia Sinica, highly-respected Nobel Prize winner Lee Yuan-tze, limply excused this on the grounds that the institution could not hold him because he was a US citizen. Rather than seizing all incoming masks and simply redistributing them through the network of government health clinics to ease the shortage, the government is spot-checking shops for price-gouging, as if anyone will pay the slightest attention. The result is that masks are unavailable. With a fine sense of bureaucratic comedy, a local city government announced that if you wanted to visit its buildings to carry on your business, you should wear a medical-quality mask, although the central government has restricted them to medical personnel only. There is now open discussion of the one certain solution: confine everyone to their homes and shut the country down for 14 days, until all possibility of SARS has passed. However, everyone knows that too many people would simply pay no attention to any such order, just as they pay no attention to any other order the government gives. "There is no law on Taiwan," runs a knowing local saying. Perhaps the locals, having reformed the KMT out of office, will finally reform the law into it, now that they have SARS to spur them on.

No comments: