ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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State Secrets, Profits and SARS

If SARS showed the weakness of the centralised and authoritarian Chinese political system, it also exposed the fact that in giving primacy to business profits, Toronto could let down its guard too soon. It is not only the lack of democracy, but also the enshrining of profits that is a culprit.

One of the novel theses to emerge from Amartya Sen’s work (alone and together with Jean Dreze) is that democracy has a role to play in preventing large-scale famines. The connection is via the manner in which multi-party democracy would spread the penalty of famines to ruling parties and political leaders, and the information that a free or adversarial press and civil society institutions can play in publicising information about starvation deaths. One might make a modification to this thesis and say that the above would not necessarily hold true where the population affected or threatened by famine is politically marginal or affected by forms of social exclusion. Thus, witness the reports of famine and starvation deaths in the indigenous peoples’ areas of Maharashtra and Orissa without, however, any widespread negative political consequences for the parties or persons in power. The moral realm of ordinary citizens does not extend usually to such socially excluded or politically marginal peoples. The connection between democracy and capability can be extended to other forms, health in this case, as the recent and continuing SARS episode shows.

The illness originated in China, but the Chinese government refused to acknowledge its existence until very late in the day. Were the Chinese authorities unaware of the problem? Reports about the mysterious new illness began to come out of Guangdong in early February 2003. But these were suppressed. They were not made public and it is also possible that they were not transmitted upwards to the highest levels. In China almost anything can become a matter of state security and be made a state secret. Even a study of something like trafficking of women, both into and out of China, can become a matter of state security and the researchers prohibited from publishing their findings. There is a law, promulgated in 1996 by the ministry of public health and the state bureau for the protection of state secrets by which “highest level infectious diseases” are classified as “highly secret” (Jonathan Mirsky in The New York Review, May 29, 2003). Thus, SARS remained a state secret until the WHO blew the whistle. By then the necessary precautionary measures had not been put in place, making it that much more difficult to contain the spread of SARS.

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