Guangzhou's Sars memorial should be a monument to truth

A proposed structure in Guangzhou would remember victims of Sars - but it also needs to praise those who first exposed the epidemic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 4:54am

While people in the Yangtze River Delta are grappling with H7N9 bird flu cases, there is a move afoot in the Pearl River Delta to build a monument to mark the 10th anniversary of the battle against the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak.

Guangzhou-based daily the Yangcheng Evening News has promoted the idea in its paper and online since last week. It said a memorial was needed in the city to remember those killed by Sars.

In 2006, the Guangzhou government created statues of some doctors and nurses who were infected by Sars and died in the line of duty in 2003. But many people complained that the statues were in a park in a rural area and not many residents knew about the statues.

Some local scholars and senior officials welcome the daily's idea.

Guo Weiqing, a political science professor at Sun Yat-sen University in the city, said he hoped such a monument would remind the public of Sars-style risks and serve as a warning to keep society on guard.

Liao Xinbo, deputy director of the Guangdong Health Department, said it was good to have more than one place to remind people of the tragedy.

He hoped this time that a monument would be set up in a more prominent location.

However, there are those who say that such a monument would be a waste of money. "Why bother building a monument? We should use the money to support those who have suffered from the [medical conditions] of Sars," said one online comment on the proposal by the Yangcheng Evening News.

Both sides have a point, but neither tackle the real issue.

Beijing has for decades followed strict propaganda rules that generally ignore or even cover up mistakes and damage caused by officials. So it is good to see that the state-controlled media and some officials are becoming more open. Many mainlanders complain that if Beijing had not covered up the truth in the early stages of past epidemics, then many victims might have had a better chance of survival.

But it is also true that most government-funded monuments and ceremonies serve only one function: to highlight the "great achievements" made by officials and to forget their failures.

Therefore, the key question is not whether it is necessary to build a monument, but rather how to have a memorial with the right message. It should be a place where people can remember not only the victims of Sars, but also those who first uncovered the truth about the virus and told the public.

Without the latter, more people might have died 10 years ago.

For example, Dr Jiang Yanyong in Beijing was widely regarded as the first person on the mainland to expose the severity of the Sars epidemic in the capital in 2003.

According to an interview run by The Beijing News last month, some doctors told Jiang that by April 4, 2003, three Beijing hospitals had received more than 140 suspected or confirmed Sars patients.

On April 3, the head of the Ministry of Health told a press conference that Beijing hospitals had received only 12 Sars cases and everything was under control.

"I knew he was lying. I was very angry," Jiang was quoted by The Beijing News as saying.

Jiang then sent letters to two mainland media groups, telling them the truth - but neither replied to him. In the end, the foreign media heard about his concerns and interviewed him. It was then that the Sars epidemic became a global concern.

If Guangzhou builds a new monument to Sars, it should highlight the crucial work of people like Jiang. A Sars monument in Guangzhou that honours those who told the truth and exposed the real state of the epidemic 10 years ago could also be a reminder for officials in other places who are still accustomed to covering up all the negative news.

Even with the H7N9 bird flu cases, some officials, it seems, have still not learned the lessons of Sars. A story by the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News on Wednesday said that the first speculation of a death from the H7N9 virus was posted on a microblog as early as March 7, three days after a patient died from an unknown flu virus in Shanghai's Fifth People's Hospital.

The post and related comments were deleted by censors within hours. It was not until March 31 that the Ministry of Health confirmed that the patient who died in Shanghai on March 4 was killed by the H7N9 virus.

So it's definitely the right time to build the Guangzhou memorial, to stand as a warning to officials about the deadly consequences of not telling the truth.