Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to welcome all of you to Bangkok and to the APEC Health Ministers' Meeting.
Not so long ago, the rapid outbreak of a mysterious new disease called SARS gripped the world with fear. In the APEC region, business and travel declined steeply, rolling back APEC's efforts to facilitate trade. Throughout the region and the world, scientists and policymakers worked around the clock to contain the spread of SARS and stem the panic that threatened to undo the region's economic recovery. In April, Malaysia hosted a meeting of ASEAN+3 Health Ministers to address the problem. Later in the same month, I accepted Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's suggestion to host the Special ASEAN Leaders' Meeting and Special ASEAN-China Leaders' Meeting on SARS, both of which took place in this very hall. And just last week, again in Malaysia, the World Health Organization (WHO) convened the first global conference on SARS.
These and other efforts seem to have paid off. Since 23 June, there have been no new cases worldwide. Travel advisories have now been lifted against all the hardest hit regions, including Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and, most recently on 24 June, Beijing. My congratulations to all, especially China, on a job well done.
While we can breathe easier for the moment, our work is far from finished. Though SARS may fade from our attention as the immediate danger recedes, it is likely that the virus will never completely disappear. There is no telling when it will re-emerge and how much more damage it will do the next time around. What's more, it is possible that the next outbreak will be of another disease just as unknown and mysterious.
In view of this, I am convinced that we cannot, and must not, drop our guard. Within a relatively short period of time, SARS has caused economic damage more quickly than the economic crisis of 1997. Its re-emergence could cause even more devastation. We must therefore maintain our vigilance at all times and strengthen our preparedness in all areas.
From a scientific standpoint, we still have much to learn about SARS. We still do not know where it really came from, how it jumped species, exactly how it is transmitted, and whether it is seasonal. Research and scientific cooperation will need to intensify if we are to unravel the mysteries of SARS and revive business confidence. As long as we do not know enough about SARS, fear and uncertainty will be the driving forces in business decisions, impeding APEC's efforts to foster closer economic cooperation and interaction.
I believe, however, that behind every crisis there also lie some opportunities. The opportunity presented by this particular crisis is that SARS has revealed the weaknesses in our public health emergency response system. Now that we know where the chinks in our armor lie, we need to reinforce those stress points. Health screening measures need to be revised for greater effectiveness. Mechanisms that have sprung up to address SARS need to be fine-tuned and developed into more robust, long-term mechanisms flexible enough to cope with future outbreaks of SARS or any other epidemic.
At Los Cabos last year, I introduced as the APEC theme for 2003 "A World of Differences: Partnership for the Future." And as one of the sub-themes, I called for efforts to promote human security. The outbreak of SARS has shown us how important human security is to trade and investment in the region. In order for us to promote human security, we have to act in partnership to ensure that the region enjoys freedom from fear of SARS and of other infectious diseases that may arise in the future.
It is said that the best time to mend holes in your roof is when it stops raining. We humans have a tendency to let things lapse whenever the immediate problem or crisis passes. It is my hope that we should all take this opportunity to apply the lessons learned from the SARS crisis to reinforce our individual and collective defense mechanisms to meet future challenges. It is also my hope that the next time a similar outbreak occurs, we will not again have to hold meeting after meeting. If by then, we have effective mechanisms that kick in automatically, we can look back on this day with satisfaction at a job well begun.
APEC is uniquely positioned to add value to the fight against SARS, by addressing both the public health dimension as well as the economic dimension of the disease. The MRT Statement on SARS issued in Khon Kaen underscored APEC's commitment to addressing the trade and investment-related aspects of SARS. I believe the Statement from this APEC Health Ministers' Meeting will be another excellent opportunity for us to lay a solid foundation for future collective efforts in preventing and containing regional threats to public health, and restore business confidence in the APEC region. Only through such a combined approach can we continue to move closer towards the Bogor Goals.
I look forward to seeing concrete, practical outcomes from the Meeting. I wish you every success in your deliberations.
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