in 2012 and 2013, Saudi Arabia reassured the world it was paying close attention to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in the kingdom, known as MERS. But events have begun to pull back the curtain on a disease outbreak that was – and remains – dangerous and not fully explained or explored.
There is no known antiviral or vaccine. So far MERS does not appear to transmit rapidly among humans in a way that could create a pandemic. Public health experts have been puzzled and frustrated about why so little information was coming.
Now the Ministry of Health has made a startling admission: The number of cases was undercounted by 113, or about 20 percent. Tariq Madani, head of the scientific advisory board at the Saudi Ministry of Health, says that many of the cases were confirmed by government hospitals and labs that didn’t notify the ministry.
This is an alarming systemic failure and speaks volumes about such a closed society: People and institutions react out of fear and keep painful information secret. The consequences of coverup can be grave. Without a free and open media or other channels to reveal the truth, the secret lay undisclosed. Only when a major outbreak appeared this spring in Jiddah did the government begin to react by firing the health minister and pledging more openness. Since then, more data have been forthcoming, but gaps remain.
There is a lesson for the whole world here: Secrecy greatly multiplied the danger of the disease. The first line of defense must be absolute transparency.