Government Official—Guangdong Province
Jun Chang is the grandson of a government official former colonel for the Communist forces in the Chinese Civil War. He has worked as an official in Guangdong Province since 1997.
. How did the provincial government in Guangdong first respond to the SARS outbreak?
We responded as quickly and decisively as possible once we realized that the disease was more serious than what was typical during flu season. It took some time to determine that we were dealing with something we hadn’t seen before, because at first we only had a handful of cases to examine. The local media began reporting that an epidemic was taking place, something we did not believe to be true at the time. All the same, the public became alarmed and it led to panic buying of flu remedies in early January. The hysteria was only exacerbating the situation, so the provincial government, myself included, issued a statement that no serious outbreak was materializing.
. How did the national government work with you in response to the development of the atypical cases?
Information of this sort is highly sensitive in China and must be passed along through the proper channels to the central authorities. A team from the Ministry of Health in Beijing visited our province on January 20th and reported back on the 23rd about the cases of atypical pneumonia. Because the information was sensitive, the report was classified as "top secret" when it was sent back to the Ministry of Health. Unfortunately, the reported arrived during the Lunar New Year holiday, so no one from the Ministry was able to read it for three days.
. After receiving the report, what steps did the Ministry of Health take next?
It was decided that there was not sufficient evidence to make a public statement at that time or to contact neighboring provinces about the atypical cases. The Ministry shared our concern about causing upheaval among the populace. That view changed fairly quickly as more cases began appearing in the provincial capital of Guangzhou. Also, a text message that read "there is fatal flu in Guangzhou" began spreading, leading to exactly the kind of public panic we were hoping to avoid.
. What did the Ministry of Health decide to do after more cases appeared?
In consultation with them, we instituted a province-wide reporting system for cases of the atypical flu on February 3rd. On the 9th, a second team from Beijing arrived and worked with the hospitals to standardize treatment and infection control measures. Around the same time, the WHO received an email claiming that more than a hundred people had died the atypical pneumonia in Guangzhou. After examining the evidence, the Ministry reported to the WHO that they had uncovered 335 cases of the atypical flu, of which 5 had been fatal. They also reported that the cause of the new strain of flu had not been identified, but that isolation and other control measures had halted its spread. The Guangzhou city health bureau issued a press release at the same time claiming there had been 100 deaths, so there was some disagreement among the health officials as to the extent of the outbreak.
. If a similar outbreak were to happen again, would the provincial government do anything differently?
I think we responded appropriately given the circumstances. We didn’t know we had anything new on our hands until after the flu had spread. By law, any information of this type must pass through the central channels, so we were not in a position to report it to the WHO ourselves. At the same time, once we became aware of the extent of the problems, we did everything in our power to stop the spread of the disease. In a legal sense, and in any sense for that matter, I’m not sure we could have done things any differently.