The African swine fever epidemic that is currently sweeping through China is beginning to look as serious as the SARS crisis that hit the southern part of the country around 15 years ago. Indeed, many experts are worried that it could prove even worse.
The SARS epidemic hit the headlines around the world and while many feared it could escalate into a global crisis, in the end there were relatively few cases outside China. That is not to downplay the magnitude of its impact though.
Official statistics have a total of 8,098 SARS cases with 774 of those proving fatal. Of course, any official data emanating out of Communist China has to be taken with a big pinch of salt, and it is likely that there were many more cases and deaths that didn’t make it onto the official World Health Organization (WHO) figures.
In the end SARS was contained and, in the years afterwards, there was much discussion about how the global health community, and especially China, could learn from the mistakes that were made.
But learning lessons is much harder for a totalitarian communist regime than it is a free and democratic state. In Communist China, it is not permitted to criticize the authorities, so while other countries would have engaged in a free and forthright debate about how to improve their epidemic procedures, in China no such public debate took place.
Indeed, it appears that the SARS epidemic was essentially swept under the carpet as another bit of bad PR that could risk the security of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) if it lingered too long.
Such an approach means that it was inevitably that when such an outbreak occurred again, all the same mistakes would be made again. This is exactly what has happened in this African swine fever outbreak.
China’s denial of the swine fever outbreak
As before, the CCP has initially denied the outbreak is taking place at all. Once that approach proved implausible, they have basically battened down the hatches and gone into full-blown denial mode.
As the deputy chief of Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (COA), Huang Chin-cheng (黃金城) warned earlier this week, the CCP now appears to be deliberately withholding information about the African swine fever outbreak from the international community. Occasional updates on the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture’s website are all the information they are giving out.
The risk to neighboring countries such as Taiwan is obviously very significant and it is no wonder that the Taiwanese government is pushing as hard as it can for reliable information. But far from cooperating, China has shut down the main mode of communication on public health matters.
As of Christmas Eve, China was only admitting to 100 cases of swine fever. All experts agree that the number is significantly higher and a brief online search can turn up horrific videos of rural towns filled with the carcasses of dead pigs which, if genuine, imply a much more serious situation on the ground there.
Meanwhile, Chinese visitors to Taiwan continue to try and carry meat products into the country on a regular basis. This suggests either that most Chinese people are still totally unaware of the outbreak or even that there might be a deliberate attempt to spread the disease to Taiwan too.
This epidemic is, to all intents and purposes, SARS 2.0. It is another major public health crisis which the Chinese authorities are chronically mishandling in order to minimize the negative publicity it could cause to the Communist regime both domestically and internationally.
But China today is much more powerful and global than it was back in the early 2000’s and this makes the global associated with this current crisis even more severe.
China’s involvement in the global food chain is much greater which makes the risk of the disease spreading much higher too. For example, Smithfield Foods, which is the main supplier of pork products to the USA, is now in Chinese hands. This means the likelihood of infected meats making it into the US food chain is much higher than would have been the case before.
Yet despite everything, China’s attempts to keep the issue out of the international headlines seems to be working. International awareness of the African swine fever outbreak in China is almost non-existent, despite the obvious severity of the situation and the risks it could pose to those outside China.
Taiwan’s chance to be the responsible international player
Taiwan is one of the few countries that is fully aware of the situation in China and as a responsible member of the international community, they have a duty to get that message out there.
The Taiwanese government should be doing everything they can to highlight CCP failings on this issue and Government ministers should not only be briefing their counterparts around the world, but also publishing letters and opinion articles in international newspapers to increase public awareness globally.
They should also put forward experts to brief to the WHO and other international bodies on the crisis. At the same time, there is also now a case to push for sanctions to be put in place against China is they continue to block the spread of reliable information about the outbreak and, by this irresponsible action, put the lives of thousands of people around the world at risk.
They also have to take the strongest possible steps to protect Taiwan from the risks posed by the epidemic too. While the increased border checks are to be welcomed, they still don’t go far enough.
With Chinese visitors still seemingly oblivious to the outbreak, everyone entering Taiwan from China or on a Chinese passport should be subject to customs checks. Airlines flying from China to Taiwan should be obliged to post messages at the point of embarkation warning of the risk of serious fines if meat products are carried into Taiwan and those that flout the ban should face the strongest possible sanctions.
In Communist China, life has no value. The African swine fever epidemic will be handed as a political issue rather than a health or humanitarian one. It is a PR problem to be managed rather than a virus to be contained. The number of people who die is not important, but the way domestic and international audiences view the crisis is.
It is ever thus when authoritarian regimes have a major health issue to deal with. The Chinese Communist Party is not capable of being an open and responsible member of the international communist on this issue, any more than it is things like intellectual property or environmental agreements.
As such, there will always be a risk to Taiwan whenever such an outbreak occurs. But with that risk, there is also a diplomatic opportunity to be grasped as well.