China: April 5, 2003

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The Chinese government was humbled again by the Internet as it tried to keep quiet the outbreak of SARS last fall. The disease was apparently yet another of those species jumping recombinant viruses that have cursed China for thousands of years. Viruses, like influenza, will go from one species to another if man and animal live in close proximity. Half the world's pigs (a species very closely related to humans) are in China, where many spend a lot of time very close to humans. A similar situation applies with many domestic birds (another common source of species jumping viruses.) Most of the world's epidemic diseases have first shown up in China as a disease that doesn't, for example,  hurt pigs much, but  crosses over to a human, recombines with some DNA in a human and produces a new, very lethal, human disease (like measles, or "killer flu.") SARS was apparently one of these species jumping diseases (using a virus that causes hardly any discomfort in, say, pigs, but has turned more lethal in humans). SARS kills about three percent of its victims, and you apparently get it by being too close to a victim when they talk or breathe out (you have to get a good snout full of the virus from the victim.) China, as it has done for centuries, tried to keep news of SARS quiet until it could figure out what was going on. This was easy enough to do, as the Chinese medical community knows the drill, and few doctors or nurses are willing to risk the wrath of the secret police by talking out of turn. Moreover, the medical personnel noted that SARS was not a vicious killer and knew that Chinese medical specialists were working on it. But the Chinese secrecy campaign meant that there was no public warning about SARS and those who caught it began to move around. Soon, cases were showing up in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and this made the news, which means the Internet as well. Chinese Internet users took notice of this, especially people in southern China where SARS first broke out. At that point the government lost control of the information, and this week even began apologizing for keeping this serious international medical matter secret. This is not the first time the government has been so humbled by the Internet, and the government does not like it at all. The communists who run the government have been able to tame all other threats to their power, except the Internet. Chinese leaders are more afraid of the Internet than they are of SARS.

 

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