Academic journal article China Perspectives

China Syndrome, the True Story of the 21st Century First Great Epidemic/Twenty-First Century Plague. the Story of SARS, with a New Preface on Avian Flu

Academic journal article China Perspectives

China Syndrome, the True Story of the 21st Century First Great Epidemic/Twenty-First Century Plague. the Story of SARS, with a New Preface on Avian Flu

Article excerpt

Karl Taro Greenfeld, China Syndrome, The True Story of the 21st Century First Great Epidemic, New York, Harper Collins, 2006.

Thomas Abraham, Twenty-First Century Plague. The Story of SARS, with a new Preface on Avian Flu, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2007 (first edition 2004).

The SARS crisis in 2003 very quickly gave rise to a number of analyses on its conse- quences in terms of public health by setting China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in opposition to each other in a global and quite general way.((1) Few accounts, however, take into consideration the plu- rality of the actors who were involved in this crisis, the brevity of which (a few months between December 2002 and April 2003) disguises somewhat the intensity of the efforts to bring it to an end. Two accounts published by journalists, one by Thomas Abra- ham, assistant professor at the Jour- nalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong, the other by Karl Taro Greenfeld, former director of Time Asia, retrace the evo- lution of the epidemic from a chrono- logical and geographic perspective. The account by Thomas Abraham is more academic and retrospective, evaluating the succession of events from the point of view of the epidemi- ological results that were finally es- tablished. That of Karl Taro Greenfeld, though written at a later stage, pres- ents the events "in the heat of the moment" and uses all the resources of journalistic suspense, re-creating the sense of uncertainty and urgency of the scientific data pro- duced on the infectious agent. Both show that the fight against SARS not only brought China and the WHO into conflict, but also linked actors in di- verse locations: Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Bei- jing on the one hand, and Hanoi, Geneva, and At- lanta on the other.

Greenfeld's book is a good introduction to the events that constituted the SARS crisis, as its novelistic style is lively and enjoyable to read. To claim that it is the "true story," as the subtitle makes out, is an exaggeration, however, for de- spite the efforts of the author to acquire and con- vey the foundations of virology, it is not lacking in scientific errors.((2) The book starts with a list of the dramatis personae, and indeed, its major interest lies in its recounting of the international comédie humaine grappling with the contagion. In his role as editor-in-chief of Time Asia, Greenfeld had par- ticularly good access to two types of actors: on the one hand, the two scientists at the University of Hong Kong who identified the cause of the dis- ease, Malik Peiris and Guan Yi, and on the other, the Chinese doctors who, defying the official ban, revealed to the greater public the extent of the contagion: Zhong Nanshan, director of the Insti- tute for Respiratory Diseases in Guangzhou, and Jiang Yanyong, a physician at the 301 Military Hospital in Beijing. It was Time Asia, in fact, that published in April 2003 the letter by Jiang Yany- ong maintaining that the number of SARS victims was much higher than that declared by the Minis- ter of Health, Zhang Wenkang, and it seems that this event was the trigger that pushed Greenfeld to undertake an investigation into the disease from the point of view of Hong Kong, where he was based at the time.

The narrative begins in November 2002, when the first victims of a mysterious respiratory disease were beginning to feel its symptoms in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The author endeav- ours to follow an ordinary patient, Fang Lin, who refuses to admit himself to hospital for fear of the cost of medical care, and intermeshes his account with the inquiries conducted by Malik Peiris and Guan Yi on birds that had contracted avian flu in Hong Kong, comparing the contractions of the lungs of the human victims with the facial haem- orrhages of the winged creatures in striking and bloody descriptions. We discover an essential factor in the crisis in the fact that the scientists who treated the first SARS victims in Hong Kong expected to encounter the H5N1 virus responsi- ble for the avian flu that began afflicting Hong Kong in 1997: this crossover between the two in- fectious diseases initially caused a delay in the re- sponse of the Hong Kong health authorities to the SARS contagion, but then spurred a tremendous acceleration of research into the emerging viruses, which allowed the disease to be under- stood and may have controlled its spread. …

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