Local officials often prioritize economic gain at the expense of public health
This article first appeared in the May 13th edition of the Asia Wall Street Journal
At the end of March, a Chinese newspaper reported that four children died and many more fell ill in Shanxi province after receiving vaccines that were not properly stored. The heat-sensitive vaccines had been taken out of air-conditioned rooms because government labels -- required to show that the vaccines had been bought from official suppliers at inflated prices -- would not adhere to cold vials. The result? An untold number of children are now vulnerable to polio and other diseases.
Instead of investigating the matter, local health officials denied the story as "basically untrue," threatened outraged parents and prevented them from seeking help from higher authorities. The whistleblower, an employee of the Shanxi Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was demoted.
Covering up corruption and official mismanagement in health care is a common response among Chinese officials. That's despite government promises that lessons were learned in 2008, when producers of baby formula discovered it was cheaper to poison infants than sell authentic formula. Thousands of babies became sick from ingesting milk tainted with melamine -- an industrial product more commonly used to make plastics.
Like the tainted vaccines, the melamine scandal is a story about local officials sacrificing the health of Chinese citizens to make a profit. Factories that produced the tainted milk were able to slide through the regulation pipeline by partnering with local government officials. And when children became sick, the local government's response was to threaten and arrest parents rather than offer help to the sick children.
This month the Chinese government announced a new set of health-care priorities. These goals include strengthening the rural health insurance system and raising production standards for pharmaceuticals. But the government's health-care wish list ignores the corruption, greed and mismanagement that are key barriers to providing essential medical care. These issues are clearly illustrated in what will likely be the next big scandal, brewing on an even larger scale.
Industrial pollution is causing heavy-metal poisoning in almost every corner of the country. Local government officials in the cities where the poisoning occurs deny and cover up the health consequences rather than providing help for thousands of adults and children suffering from lead poisoning. In one village, local officials prevented a bus carrying parents seeking medical help from reaching the hospital in a nearby town.
Perhaps most troubling are consistent accounts that hospitals have been paid to withhold or give false results for children who are tested for lead poisoning. Many of these children have serious neurological and developmental problems, but treatment and sustained medical care have been practically nonexistent.
Medical care for victims of industrial pollution is guaranteed under the Chinese constitution, yet victims' care has apparently taken a backseat to the protection of local officials with a financial stake in the polluting factories. In Fengxiang, Shaanxi province, where thousands of children have lead poisoning, local officials demonstrated their priorities by allowing the polluting factory to re-open, with no change in its operations.
The Chinese government has laws on the books designed to tackle corruption and protect the health of the Chinese population, but these laws lack an enforcement mechanism to ensure accountability. It's no surprise then that local officials prioritize economic gain at the expense of public health. Penalizing corruption and rewarding local officials for improvements in public health should be recognized as a critical part of legal and health-care reform.
In a globalized world, the effects of cover-ups by corrupt officials are felt far from China's borders. Melamine-tainted dairy products from China were found in countries all over the world. In February, three Chinese babies headed to the U.S. for adoption were rushed to the hospital with extremely high levels of lead in their blood. From fake cough syrup killing children in Panama to toys coated in lead harming children in the U.S., the cases exposed by the free media outside China suggest that we all face hidden risks.
It is the Chinese people, however, who bear the brunt of the harm to their health from corruption. Before the government embarks on ambitious health-care reform, it needs to address these basic priorities. Chinese officials must understand that their job is to protect health, not profits.