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Why This Time Was Different

In 2003, the world contained the SARS epidemic to Southeast Asia and ended the crisis by that July. Based on the limited information currently available, four factors help to explain the difference between then and now.

STOCKHOLM – How will the COVID-19 mega-crisis end? I don’t know, and nor does anyone else. So, perhaps it would be more productive to reflect on how it started. By addressing that issue, we might be able to improve our chances of averting another pandemic in the future.

The current crisis is hardly the first of its kind. In early 2003, another coronavirus – SARS-CoV-1 – suddenly spread from southern China across Southeast Asia, but it ultimately remained regionally contained. Later, we learned that SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) had been spreading in southern China for some time, and that Chinese officials had been reluctant even to admit its existence and issue a warning, let alone take appropriate measures to contain it. Only after the epidemic had reached Hong Kong, a key global financial hub, did alarm bells go off.

Nonetheless, coordinated international action soon followed. There was a sharp drop in air traffic in the region, and many areas were cordoned off. The World Health Organization’s leaders at the time criticized China for its slow response, and the Chinese health minister was duly fired. By early July, the WHO was able to declare the crisis over, lifting its remaining recommendations for restrictive measures. The world returned to normal.