Fighting Disease, on Internet Time

The SARS epidemic that is savaging Hong Kong's economy is another rude reminder of the impact of globalization. Like the September 11 attacks in the U.S., the rapid spread of SARS and the economic toll that it is taking underscore just how much needs to be done to adapt to our brave new world. Both governments and corporations should heed the lessons of a world in which disease moves at just-in-time speed.

Governments, companies, and citizens need to apply lessons from the Internet Age. We need openness and transparency to fight diseases. Governments need to work through the World Health Organization to ensure that diseases are monitored better and reported more quickly. China bears a particular responsibility. The booming southern province of Guangdong and its neighbor, Hong Kong, are among the most potent global breeding grounds for new viruses. It's heartening that China's President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have belatedly realized what's at stake. But in the absence of a commitment to reform China's opaque administrative structure, at least in health care, there's unlikely to be any lasting change.

That's why the WHO must keep up pressure on China to report all cases of SARS. And China must commit to behaving more responsibly when it comes to health care. Hong Kong leaders need to pressure their mainland counterparts to ensure that diseases aren't covered up as they rage unchecked.

The SARS epidemic resembles the fallout from a bioterrorist attack. If there is a single corporate lesson, it is that corporations need redundancy and modularity. "Divide to survive" is the new mantra. Whether on a factory line or in an office tower, corporations are experimenting with innovative ways to isolate various parts of their organization. That way, if a quarantine is required in one unit, other parts of the organization will be able to pick up the slack and continue.

Medically, it doesn't seem as if SARS is a disaster. But we can learn from the epidemic. For disaster will strike, someday, somewhere. Corporations and governments, especially those in Asia, ignore this warning at their peril.

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