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SARS can be lesson for world

Some come with a Burberry or Louis Vuitton label — just don’t say they take your breath away.

Label or no label, surgical masks have become the latest must-have item in Hong Kong. But this is no mere fad. The outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has struck fear into the hearts of Hong Kong’s citizens. As of Monday, the disease has claimed its 100th victim, with approximately 2,700 reported infections around the world. Travel warnings issued by the World Health Organization have only fueled the anxiety felt on the island.

Unfortunately for the province, it is not a place that lends itself to isolation. As one of the key financial centers for Asia, business visitors from around the world are the life-blood of the city. Further, the densely populated island, with its population of seven million squeezed into an area some 16 square miles that makes Manhattan look sparse, is an ideal breeding ground for a contagious disease that has already claimed the lives of 23 islanders. My sister, a Hong Kong resident, told me just an innocent cough or sneeze will clear a room in seconds.

Still, you have to admire their ability to turn a crisis into a business opportunity. Designer masks began appearing almost as soon as the disease manifested itself. Like much of the designer merchandise sold in Hong Kong, the designer masks are, of course, fake. Burberry has not moved into the medical apparel market just yet.

The mysterious virus is believed to have originated in mainland China, which was rightfully targeted for heavy criticism from WHO head Gro Harlem Brundtland for its failure to report early cases of the illness and its lack of cooperation with WHO and the international community.

Due to international business travel, SARS has now spread as far as Canada. According to Brundtland, it is the first disease to spread across the world in this manner. As a consequence, last week the WHO issued a warning against traveling to Hong Kong or the Guangdong province in Southeastern China.

The threat of SARS should be a salutary lesson to the world. The WHO’s mobilization and coordination of expertise from around the world has come at a time when events elsewhere have called into question the future role, if any, of the WHO’s parent organization, the United Nations. The United States and Great Britain’s decision to eschew the democracy of the U.N. Security Council and invade Iraq is only the most recent example of the battle of national interests played out within the United Nations that has threatened the credibility and future of the organization.

Without the intervention of the WHO, it is difficult to see how the spread of SARS could have been checked. Which country would willingly cut itself off from business and tourist currency in order to contain the disease?

With mass air transit, globalization, increasing industrialization and the eradication of trade barriers around the world now, more than ever before, the fates of all nations are inextricably intertwined. Events such as the SARS crisis have shown the value of a world body able to act independently of national concerns.

While there is an obvious necessity for the United Nations, particularly the Security Council with its cold-war-orientated veto system to be restructured, the reduction of the United Nations to a humanitarian organization would be a step backward for the world. The challenge facing the countries of the world is to create a United Nations worthy of the name.

Chris O’Donnell is a sophomore majoring in mass