China and Inner Asia
Brown University, United States
Like its cousin SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) the SARS virus that caused a worldwide outbreak in 2003 was a novel coronavirus with a likely zoonotic origin. Like COVID, symptoms of the resulting disease included cough, high fever and respiratory failure. Unlike COVID, however, SARS never escalated into a full-blown pandemic. The SARS virus killed around 800 people worldwide out of 8,000 recorded cases, before disappearing in July 2003 as suddenly and mysteriously as it had arrived. As the journalist David Quammen put it, “SARS was the bullet that went whistling past humanity’s ear.” It was the pandemic that wasn’t. And so most of the world’s attention quickly moved on. But in the public health community in China, SARS became the spark that remade China’s public health system. The SARS experience also gave China an outsized role in a global effort to prevent just the sort of nightmarish pandemic scenario that Covid-19 has now wrought. That prevention effort was at once a spectacular failure on a global level – and, for at least a time, a spectacular success in China. The question is, why? In this paper I discuss how the story of what went wrong and right in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in the People’s Republic of China is tied closely to what at first went wrong, and then later went right, with SARS in 2003.