Asia Perspective: The Ethics of Disclosure: A Study of SARS


Singapore — Disclosure implies revealing information previously kept secret. Therefore, to disclose information close at heart is akin to admitting someone to your inner sanctum, a concept foreign to the Asian culture. Even close family members may not necessarily disclose their deepest secrets to each other. Evidence of this reluctance to honest disclosure came at the onslaught of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which ravaged major cities in China PRC, Taiwan ROC, Hong Kong SAR, and Singapore.

SARS Coverup

Between March to mid April 2003, even though China was already thought to be the likely source of SARS, China’s Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and other officials were quick to play down China’s responsibility and the severity of the situation. When it became obvious that China had been covering up for the severity of the disease (the location of more than 50% of the global cases), the top leaders finally acceded that China had to be responsible. On April 20, 2003, Health Minister Zhang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong were fired for their blatant cover up.

Just offshore from Canton, Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) dithered far too long before taking the SARS influx seriously. By then, the number of infected rivaled that of mainland China, with a high number of deaths as well. The hospitality and retail trades stood still. Large carriers such as Cathay Pacific saw few takers.

One hundred miles across the South China Sea, Taiwan did not fare any better. The Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital (Chinese for “peace”), under the charge of hospital president Wu Khangwen, claimed to have no problem when Taiwan President Chen Shuibian enquired about allegations that there were SARS patients in the hospital. The rapid spread of SARS cases into the Taiwan community was later confirmed to have started from Hoping Hospital, and Wu was fired. Because of the mishandling and lack of disclosure in the hospital, medical caregivers became riotous, and required the municipal police to maintain order.

Down south, the tiny island Singapore was not spared, although neighboring countries did not see many SARS cases. This was due to strong economic links between Singapore, Hong Kong and China. Because of the small size of the city state and a population housed in high-rise apartments, close contact became a potential headache. As with the case of Hong Kong, Singapore was badly hit in the hospitality, tourism, retail, and transportation businesses. As with all SARS infected countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued advisories to avoid traveling to these countries.

Eradicating SARS

Singapore was most aggressive in attempting to eradicate the SARS outbreak, with US$130 million relief package quickly announced on April 17, and provided to the tourism and transportation industries, to provide some economic relief. At the same time, aggressive steps were taken to create an isolated medical environment, with legislated home quarantine orders issued to all those who came into contact with potential or detected SARS cases. For those who broke quarantine orders, enacted fines and even jail terms were issued as deterrents. The government was upfront and honest with full disclosure in the entire outbreak, and earned global empathy and admiration for its efforts.

Within weeks after the outbreak, China realized that its admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 came with heavy global responsibility, and sought to change the previous non-disclosure to a national drive to eradicate SARS. Has it succeeded? Not yet at this time of writing.

One of the more symbolic and yet pragmatic acts was setting up a 1,000-bed capacity SARS hospital in Xiaotangshan, with, built from scratch by a collective effort of 7,000 people working 24-hours over just eight days. The central government also quickly enacted new laws, including that of issuing warnings and fines to anyone who spit, since the SARS virus could spread through this medium. On May 13, the central government even decreed that officials must report outbreaks promptly or face jail terms and fines.

Even Hong Kong launched a serious relief attempt, with an announced US$1.5 billion package on April 22, aimed at tax rebates and reduction, loan guarantee schemes, temporary job creation, national publicity campaigns, and medical research. After two months of nudging by local physicians and researchers, the administration also agreed to build a disease control center for infectious diseases. They also initiated a massive environmental clean-up campaign to reduce the possibility of the environment playing a part in spreading the disease. However, Hong Kong’s legislators are facing tremendous fire from the public. With the precedence of officials from mainland China being fired for incompetence, Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa is facing serious public dissent. On July 17, his security secretary Regina Ip and financial secretary Antony Leung resigned, amidst the lowest public support for the administration.

The last country desperately attempting to reduce the devastating impact was Taiwan ROC. The fractioned government, coupled with a laggard attitude and a lack of crisis management expertise in addressing critical problems such as this, does not bode well for the island province. However, Taiwan saw its last probable SARS case on June 15.

Lessons Learned

From the instances of how various Asian nations handled the ongoing SARS crisis, we can learn a thing or two.

First, nations such as Singapore which disclosed quickly and expediently and then followed through with incisive actions and sweeping reforms, quickly regained the lost trust of stakeholders and the public at large. Conversely, nations which disclosed only after much public pressure were ridiculed. And if no effective actions were carried out, these nations quickly lost allies, public support, and international business. Can such trust and economic support be regained easily and quickly? Not likely, especially in a world where the economy is already volatile and unstable.

By Seamus Phan

Based in Singapore, Seamus Phan is
one of Asia’s leading thinkers and practitioners
in business leadership, Internet security, and marketing.