HONG KONG - The deadly atypical pneumonia known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has rapidly spread across the world, affecting five continents to date. Those countries that have frankly released information about local cases treat the illness as a health crisis. But in Malaysia, which has attempted to cover up the epidemic situation, panic and anxiety are prevailing, rumors are brewing and everyone is paranoid.
According to official World Health Organization (WHO) figures for Southeast Asian countries as of Tuesday, the number of infected cases in Singapore was 113, with eight deaths, highest in the region; in Thailand, seven infected with two deaths; and in Vietnam, 62 cases and four deaths. In Indonesia, SARS has been declared a national epidemic threat. Singapore's neighbor Malaysia, however, has confirmed only one case, the others being "probable" or "suspect".
But the "clean" record of Malaysia fails to convince people either within or outside the country. Suspect cases have been reported in Johor, Penang, Sembilan and Telok Intan. The government on April 1, when it was revealed that hospitals nationwide had patients under SARS watch, made a U-turn to reveal that the country had eight "suspect cases" of the illness under observation. And it was not until two days later that the Health Ministry made public that 59 suspect cases had been reported and 19 of them had been quarantined.
To make things worse, worried about close scrutiny, the country's Interior Ministry advised the English-language media to "be cooperative and adjust" their reports about atypical pneumonia. Similarly, Chinese-language media, including Sin Chew Daily, Nanyang Siang Pau, China Press and Guangming Daily, which carried headline news about atypical pneumonia before April 1, moved all related reports to inside pages on that morning, leaving the public to speculate about the severity of the problem.
Since the outbreak of SARS in the region, Malaysia has had four deaths attributed to flu and fever. Hospitals haven't revealed the causes of those deaths and the authorities deny that they died of atypical pneumonia. However, hospitals dealt with their aftermath in the same way they deal with that of deaths from infectious diseases. One victim's family members were even compelled to be isolated for two weeks. When asked the cause of the victim's death, Dr Ahmad Shukri Ismail, chairman of the Health, Youth and Sports Committee of Pahang, declined to answer, noting that it was confidential.
Although the authorities' explanations are full of contradictions, the government still denies that Malaysia has SARS cases other than the single case listed by WHO. This is not the first time the government has covered up an epidemic situation. Not long ago, when coxsackie, Nipah and dengue-fever viruses hit the country, relevant information was also kept secret, leading to many innocent deaths. The Malaysian government, disappointingly, hasn't learned from its own history.
The authorities appear to be playing with words, labeling true SARS cases matching with WHO classification as "suspect cases" and denying deaths of such a cause in the hope that the country will not be on the list of affected countries, all this out of fear of mass panic or scaring tourists. This self-deception, however, fails to improve public confidence in the government's competence in handling threats from SARS. On the contrary, it leaves the public in panic, leading to a loss of credibility on the government's part. (The WHO list of "affected areas", ie, those "in which local chain(s) of transmission of SARS is/are occurring as reported by the national public health authorities", comprised, as of Tuesday, Toronto, Singapore, Guangdong, Hong Kong, Shanxi, Taiwan and Hanoi.)
Although Singapore is one of the hardest hit by SARS among Southeast Asian countries, the government has shown courage in its fast response and presentation of all relevant information, which has made the Singaporean public trust their government's competence in containing the disease.
The most effective way to fight infectious disease aside from medical treatment is through information exchange and high transparency. Sadly, in today's information era, there are still countries that refuse to place human life ahead of face. The results are the loss of valuable time, which international efforts need to prevent the spread of disease, and ultimately, the loss of many innocent lives.
Malaysia should learn from neighboring Singapore instead of following China's example. At this critical moment in the global SARS outbreak, any country's top concern should be to protect its people. Everything else, including image concerns, should be secondary. The surest way to stem an epidemic is to provide detailed, accurate and timely information to both one's own public as well as international organizations.