The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is considered to be one of the most dangerous biological disasters, having had severe impacts in Asia where its outbreak was reported.
The disease emerged in the year 2002 and became a real hazard in the year 2000 when the scale of infection rose to dangerous levels, threatening the population of the region and even beyond.
The control mechanisms of the disease proved to be strenuous in 2003 because of several factors, among them the scale of infection and the size of the population, especially in a country like China that has a large population.
It is argued that the nature of the disease did not only portray a problem in the public health sector, but it also has severe implications on the socio-political and economic organization in the region. One of the most unheeding characteristics of the disease is that it was highly infectious.
This drew a lot of alertness from the bodies that were responsible for laying down controls to the disease. This paper discusses how mobile phones and the internet played a role in the progression of SARS in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Of greater focus in the paper is the exploration of the socio-economic and political factors in as far as the spread and control of the disease is concerned and how communication was advanced in the course of the efforts to control the disease.
A number of analysts made predictions that the epidemic was bound to cause havoc to the economy of South East Asia if radical steps were not taken to prevent the disease from spreading in the region. The scale of international political cooperation in the South East Asian region also comes out through this point.
Amid the rise in the cases of SARS in the region, delegates from health departments of ten of the countries that form the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in China to deliberate about the disease. This was followed by the meeting of the heads of governments in the region.
From this kind of response, it can be said that the rate of socio-political and economic cooperation in the region has matured and has been the epicentre of the rate of economic development that is being witnessed in the region (Breckon, n.d.).
The question that needs to be explored when referring to the outbreak and control of SARS concerns the use of media as a platform for mitigating the disease and the level at which the media helped in communication during the progression of the disease.
What role did the internet and mobile phones play during the disease, and what were the issues that revolved around the use of these media or communication tools in China?
It is argued that the spring of the year 2002 in China was referred to as ‘spring of masks’. Masks were widely used in the country by both people and animals as one of the mechanism for controlling the SARS disease.
According to Shi (2004), the same period is also known as the ‘thumb culture’. This emanates from the swelling culture of the use of mobile phones.
There was a restriction in massive movement of people as most of people were either confined in homes and the public health places as a way of minimizing the chances of SARS infection (Grossberg, 2006).
Whether the use of mobile phones was critical in enhancing communication in China during the SARS disease is an issue that attracts debate. Most people seem to agree with the observation that mobile phones were critical communication tools at that time.
The rationale behind the observation is that movement and the physical contact of people was highly restricted; therefore, mobile phones emerged as one of the main tools for advancing communication.
Mobile phones, especially the short message service (SMS) were widely used as a medium of reducing the chances of further infection. The reason why short messages were crucial is that masking was highly embraced and unmasking could expose the population to the disease.
Commentators referred to the mobile phones as a fifth media for people in urban China for accessing, producing and circulating critical pieces of information about SARS (Yu, 2004).
Amidst the progression of the disease, a lot of questions were raised about the possibility of the sustainability of the country. There were fears that the Chinese economy was deteriorating as a result of the devastation that had been caused by SARS.
China underwent a period of fatality in terms of the delays in information flow, which caused anxiety, rumour-mongering and panic among the population.
The government of China came to the limelight, with internal pressure mounting on the government to speed up efforts to redeem the country’s image in the international community. This was reiterated by China’s Premier in his address to the Cabinet in 2003.
He noted that the epidemic had profound effects on the security and health of the Chinese citizenry. The epidemic also had serious negative consequences on the state of development, reform and stability that had been attained by China.
In addition, the disease impeded China from pursuing its interests across the globe due to the tarnished image of the country.
This implies that the epidemic had a profound impact not only on the Chinese public health sector, but it also had serious effects on the local and international politics and the general image and position of the country in international affairs (Breckon, n.d.).
The threats that were outlined by the Chinese Premier then sparked a response from the government, which launched an aggressive campaign to contain the spread of the disease. The campaign resulted in the successful eradication of the epidemic by August 2003.
It is argued that the epidemic posed a real test to China’s public health infrastructure.
However, the progression of the epidemic resulted in the extension of the effects due to the raising of questions about the capacity of the political structure of China and its capacity to protect the Chinese population from such epidemics in the future.
Looking at the epidemic from a political inclination brings out a number of issues about the government of China and the political organization in the country (The Economist, 2003).
The government of China managed to contain the disease, in spite of the several complexities that surrounded the disease in the country, like a dense population. The Chinese government put a desirable record about its ability to manage a national crisis.
The government of China managed to eliminate the epidemic through the mobilization of the population (Huang, 2004).
Deeper insights into the use of mobile phones and the internet in China to pass and receive messages during the outbreak and progression of the SARS epidemic pointed to the issue of democracy and human rights in China.
The history of China was marked by an acute political space, with the country coming in the limelight about the deprival of the citizens off the freedom of expression. The freedom of speech and expression was completely curtailed by the Mao regime and the curtailment was evident in the post-Mao era (Yu, 2006).
The emergence of the SARS epidemic and the wide usage of the mobile phone and internet communication was, therefore, a step towards the promotion of the freedom of speech and expression in the country.
Mobile phone communication, through the short message service and the use of the internet depicted new forms of media. It depicted the embrace of new technology in disseminating information and knowledge and the subjection of the population to what is referred to as socialist modernity.
The record of new media usage in China was quite restrained before the country faced the emergency resulting from the outbreak of the SARS epidemic (Wallis, 2011; Qiu, 2007).
The question that needs to be explored at this point in time is whether the new forms of media and their subsequent usage in China have been sustained by the government from the aftermaths of the SARS epidemic.
While there are still prospects of media regulation as a form of suppressing the freedom of speech and expression in China, it can be said that the scale of media regulation has greatly derailed since the new media was opened up to enhance communication during the SARS epidemic.
The new media as used in the SARS epidemic helped in bridging the gap that prevailed between the government and the society in China. That gap was critical to the state in as far as the suppression of the citizens from engaging in public debate in China was concerned.
It has become quite difficult for the state to restore that gap. The SMS culture and the usage of the internet denoted a shift in the political relations in the country, with the state promoting the use of the mediums as effective tools of communication and engagement of the public on the developments about the epidemic (Nip, 2012).
The political structure of China has been reconstituted courtesy of the use of the new media to combat the SARS epidemic (Wallis, 2011). The scope of technology utilization in communication is expanding greatly in both urban and rural China, and so is the increase in the cultivation of democracy in the country.
Technology has promoted communication, thereby promoting the rate at which people access and share information (Yongnian and Guoguang, 2005).
According to Oliver and Newbold (1995), the media is a critical tool for championing the social, political and economic culture of countries. The diffusion and promotion of a national culture cannot be promoted when there is a limited space on which to advance dialogue and communication.
Mass communication is part of the advancement of culture in the contemporary society, yet it was limited in China. Mass media communication has been promoted by the emergence of complexities that have necessitated the use of media to quell the complex national situations in China (Portiakov, 2003).
Yu (2004) observed that the widespread usage of the mobile phones and the internet for creating awareness of the epidemic resulted in the transformation of the population of China from mere consumers of new technology to recognition by the state
A number of commentators have reiterated the role of the new media as one of the most effective means of promoting the ability of countries to deal with conflicts and protecting the liberties of the citizenry.
The new media has been used for enhancing communication in other national emergencies that have happened in China in the recent times, like the 2008 earthquake disaster.
This is a pointer to the fact that the country can no longer afford to restrain the use of new media in communication, which implies the broadening of public communication, thereby enhancing the freedom of speech and expression in China (Bo-xu, 2004).
The Chinese government has, thus, been working on changing the policies on the press in the country, which implies that the new media, especially its utilization in national emergencies has reiterated the importance of an open space and culture of communication.
This is contrary to what was upheld by the government of China over the years (Qiu, 2007).
What is being witnessed in China today is a change in the socio-political culture, where the new media is being embraced by the state as a tool of promoting the cohesiveness of the citizenry and cooperation in matters of national importance.
The government of China, especially the ruling party has learnt to advance its ideology without barring citizens from communicating freely (Zhu, 2009).
This paper has explored the role of the new media in enhancing communication during the outbreak of SARS in China.
From the discussion, it can be concluded that the use of new media in communication during the SARS epidemic emergency in China has acted as a basis on which the freedom of speech and expression have been promoted in China.
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