SARS and Rumors of SARS

The significance of the outbreak goes far beyond the media hype or the health implications: Its impacts will be economic, political—even prophetic.

Once the war in Iraq subsided, the world’s top news story became something much less telegenic: a bug. But the lethality of the atypical pneumonia that spread throughout Asia and even touched the U.S. and Canada created quite a panic. The virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (sars), has infected over 8,000 people to date in more than 30 countries—killing over 600.

By historical standards, the numbers associated with this outbreak are small—compared to, say, the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed 20 million, or the 1957-58 Asian flu and the 1968 Hong Kong flu. But in our increasingly interdependent society, sars’s effects may be greater than those influenzas of the past. Its effects ripple out beyond the individual lives lost—they have become economic, even geopolitical, in their true scope.

As the disease peaks and begins to be contained worldwide, these effects are worth watching in the time ahead.

Severe Acute Economic Crisis

“Sars may not kill everyone in Singapore. But it can kill the Singapore economy,” said Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Leading Asian economists cut their growth predictions for Asian countries—shaving 0.6 percent off the predicted Gross Domestic Product_growth for most of Asia (amounting to $15 billion). Some called it the gravest crisis since the 1997 Asian financial meltdown. World economic growth was scaled down from 2.8 to 2.3 percent for 2003, according to the Federation of India Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

By some estimates, sars could eventually cost Asian countries around $30 billion—including casualties to the illness and the decline in tourism, consumer spending and investment.

In just 20 days in April, 133,400 people left Hong Kong. Since mid-March to the end of April, this Special Administrative Region suffered a nearly 80 percent drop in tourist arrivals from mainland China. Restaurants closed; movie theaters were filled with empty seats. Airlines in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia had to slash their flights by half. Occupancy rates at Hong Kong’s internationally renowned hotels have fallen below 30 percent—10 percent for some. In Singapore, they hovered around 20 percent.

China, which has faced sars in 26 of its 31 provinces and autonomous regions, closed its two stock exchanges, in Shanghai and Shenzhen, for the first week and a half of May, and it also shortened the seven-day-long May Day holiday to five days—a festival that usually injects billions of yuans into the Chinese economy. Experts predict that the virus will cut one to two percentage points from the miracle economy’s growth for 2003.

The Political Impacts

Despite the economic aftermath left by the outbreak, the geopolitical impacts may be even more long-term and significant. Sars originated in southern China, one of the world’s greatest incubators of new viruses. China kept sars a secret for the first few months of the outbreak, finally reporting it to the World Health Organization (who) in February.

The Chinese government was condemned by the world for its cover-up of the outbreak. Just after its first-ever peaceful transition of power was formalized, this major flaw in China’s political system was laid bare for the world to see. The government’s motives for covering up the illness was to prevent unnecessary panic, which would damage the country’s image as a safehaven for foreign investment, the key to China’s powerful growth these past several years.

The initial denial of the outbreak, however, has seriously undermined Beijing’s credibility, showing how China is among countries “where censorship and official denial have always been the norm” (Asia Times, April 9). China tried to make up for the embarrassment by sacking its health minister and Beijing’s mayor in mid-April. Chinese leaders have since insisted that China has learned its lesson.

The Chinese government has been forced to examine its political system, its capability to manage a crisis, and its weak health care system. It’s facing similar issues with aids—actually a far worse problem in China than sars.

Watch how China emerges from this latest crisis. Will China’s enviable economic growth decelerate, or will the country exit relatively unscathed on the economic front—as it did during the 1997 financial meltdown, when it was congratulated by the world as the model of stability? Will its new government make the reforms it has been promising to make China a more open and civilized society? Will Beijing regain its credibility as the potential main power of Asia? Or will another nation, say Japan, emerge from this as the most responsible one? Will Japan appear as a safer, more reliable trade partner for other nations?

Asian Cooperation

Despite losing face among its neighbors, China has still made inroads concerning its ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean)those countries, besides China, hit hardest by the outbreak. The organization called an emergency summit in Bangkok, Thailand, April 29, with China present and active in the proceedings. The Chinese offered to set up a special fund of us$1.2 billion to pursue research on sars and its spread through the region. Asean leaders welcomed both China’s presence at the summit and its proposal.

What is even more significant about this summit among asean leaders and China is the solidarity and unity of their efforts when facing a common foe. “Unlike past asean meetings, yesterday’s Bangkok summit was unprecedented for the speed with which the leaders agreed on a tough, collective response to the public health crisis they faced and the slew of concrete measures proposed” (Straits Times, April 30).

The May 8 Far Eastern Economic Review stated, “Remarkably, given the tendency for Asian summits to generate more rhetoric than action, there was agreement ….”

The who congratulated asean’s resolve concerning the crisis and heralded the summit’s results as “unprecedented efforts.”

Singapore’s prime minister said, “It may be the start of a new relationship between leaders in East Asia.

The Prophetic Connection

This brings us to two major prophetic impacts of sars. First is the way Asian leaders responded to the outbreak.

This is significant when you understand the future of the East as predicted in Bible prophecy. The Trumpet has been claiming for over 13 years that the Bible predicts Asia will unite in the end time as the largest military conglomeration in history. A 200-million man army from the Orient and Russia will respond to the threatening conquests of a Western power that the Bible calls a “beast”—forming in Europe now under the guise of the European Union but merely a revival of the Holy Roman Empire.

It may have once been difficult to explain how the fractious continent of Asia could possibly unite into one conglomeration. Knowing how asean operates, as the experts say, not much more than rhetoric is accomplished at their summits. But when faced with a common foe, they show a peculiar cohesion and unity!

The threat posed by sars has been miniscule compared to the threat that will come in the next few years from the rising Eurobeast to Asia’s west—a threat so great that it will cause Asians to unite in the most massive alliance this Earth has ever seen!

The second prophetically significant point about sars is that it shows the effect disease can have on an increasingly globalized, interconnected world. The Bible predicts that pestilence and disease will increase as this evil age reaches its final years. Though only plaguing a few thousand people and killing a few hundred, the sars virus caused far-reaching damage because of the fear surrounding it—a characteristic that will likely apply to future outbreaks. Sars had so much mystery surrounding it—what it was, how it was spread—that it fueled the fear and panic.

The damaging nature of diseases of this magnitude also lies in their unpredictability. One hotel spokeswoman said, “We anticipated war; we didn’t anticipate this.”

How many more outbreaks of this relatively lean size could the ailing and vulnerable world economy handle?

Despite the hype and headlines, sars most likely will be contained and sent on its way to the history books. Nonetheless, its spread has caused global shifts—economically and politically. The road is being paved for Bible prophecy to be fulfilled for all to see.