Region: The Sars Scourge


Deborah Johnson

During April, one news story in Asia has captured attention more than any other – that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. Whilst the 'war on Iraq' may change the complexion of global politics, the 'war on SARS' seems set to change human interaction at the people-to-people level, as symbolised by the now ubiquitous facemask. Though too early to get a full picture, the economic impact of SARS is already threatening to be far more extensive than the flow-on effects of either the 11 September terrorist attacks or the War in Iraq.

First coming to attention in mid February 2003 and then traced back to its first appearance in November 2002 in China's southern Guangdong province, the SARS coronavirus had by end April 2003 infected some 5,663 people in 29 countries causing 372 deaths. Worst affected have been China (3,460 cases, 159 deaths), Hong Kong (1,589 cases, 157 deaths), Singapore (201 cases, 24 deaths), Canada (148 cases, 20 deaths), Taiwan (78 cases, 1 death) and Vietnam (63 cases, 5 deaths).

Reflecting the seriousness of the problem, schools across the region have at different times temporarily closed their doors. In Hong Kong, Block E of the Amoy Gardens apartment complex was quarantined and temporarily evacuated; and a territory-wide cleanup was conducted on 19 April. In Singapore, the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre (main vegetable market) was closed with some 2,400 people put under a 10-day quarantine. The SuperStar Virgo luxury cruise liner operating out of Singapore was disinfected and crew members quarantined on board. In China, nearly half of its mainland provinces have reported varying cases. The Chinese government on 20 April cut the week-long May Day holidays. Beijing Mayor, Meng Xuenong, was dismissed a day after he and China’s health minister, Zhang Wenkang, were removed from their key Communist Party posts for concealing the seriousness of the epidemic. Major hospitals and universities have been quarantined.

Across the region non-essential diplomatic staff have been considering repatriation to home countries, as also expatriate staff in some international businesses. In Malaysia, the intake of foreign workers and students and the issuance of visas for tourists from SARS-affected countries were temporarily frozen. Singapore's Education Ministry announced it would spend $6 million on thermometers so that each student, teacher and Armed Forces member can check his/her temperature twice a day. Those under home quarantine in Singapore who do not cooperate by answering telephone calls from officials checking on them will be immediately tagged electronically - whether or not they have broken the quarantine. Web cams were to be installed in homes to ensure that people under quarantine don't leave. Fines and even jail terms face those who defy the quarantine orders.

Hotels across the region are empty and airports, taxis and restaurants are quiet as people heed travel warnings and elect to stay at home. In the Thai tourist resort of Phuket, hotels are closing floors of rooms amid a dramatic fall in demand. Although tourism only amounts to two-to-eight per cent of GDP in Southeast Asian nations, economists have nonetheless cut their growth projections for many Asian countries. The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (Mier) cut its full-year growth projection for the country from 5.7 to 3.7 per cent. Singapore has cut its official 2003 economic growth forecast from 2-5 to 0.5–2.5 per cent. The government has announced a package of emergency economic measures including some tax rebates amounting to S$230mil to provide immediate relief particularly for the tourism and transport sectors.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd - Asia’s fourth largest airline and Hong Kong’s de facto flag carrier - was said to be 'haemorrhaging US$3mil a day'. It slashed its flights as passenger numbers fell by two-thirds. Malaysia Airlines (MAS) cancelled 716 flights from April to June. Garuda Indonesia suspended flights to Taiwan until at least 15 May after already having cut services by half to Hong Kong and Singapore. In the US, with this latest blow the American Airlines has been teetering on bankruptcy. Overseas student intakes at universities in the West are under threat as China, Hong Kong and Singapore are major source countries. Factories have also been on alert. For example, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., the maker of Panasonic brand products, on 22 April was reported to have shut down a Beijing factory line for a day. Quanta Computer Inc., which makes notebook computers for Hewlett-Packard Co., banned visits between its factory in Taiwan and its two plants in China.

Nonetheless, there have been some positives – home delivery pizza services and shopping websites are getting more business as people become reluctant to mingle with crowds; with the collapse in demand for seafood by Asian restaurants, Australian consumers can now buy seafood at inexpensive prices; facemask and traditional Chinese medicine manufacturers/retailers are doing stiff business. Significantly, this SARS scourge has raised the question as to whether modern global business practices and transport technologies inherently contain the potential for epidemiological (and economic) catastrophe, whilst also highlighting the potentially disastrous consequences of bio-terrorism.

WATCHPOINT: How long will it be before health authorities begin to contain this outbreak and, thus, how deep will be its economic impact?


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