Intervention at what price?


The April 16 press conference was to be held in the adjoining office Bekedam had rented for the purpose. For about 10 days, Bekedam had had some media assistance. After repeated pleas, communications chief Cordingley at WHO-Manila had sent in two public relations specialists from the US, James Palmer and James Rademakers. “I called them Jim and Jim,” chuckles Bekedam. “They were helping me with the media part because we were completely overwhelmed.” The advisors expressed skepticism about the ability of the Beijing mission members to say anything critical of the Chinese government. “Henk, I feel very uncomfortable with the team,” commented one. So Bekedam emphasized to mission members before the press conference that “I expect you to report on this very clearly.”

The room was packed with some 80-100 members of the press from around the world. There were at least 25 cameras present. Those in front sat on the floor, others stood at the back. The panel of mission members first gave a brief summary, then took questions. The first two questions went to the heart of international concern: were there additional SARS cases in military hospitals, and had the authorities provided any updates on the situation in Beijing? One panel member answered that while they had indeed toured military hospitals, what they had learned was confidential. A second mission member responded that the mission had been excellent, that the Chinese counterparts had shared all necessary information and that they had had a lovely dinner. Bekedam was taken aback by their answers, although he comments that “you should not underestimate what kind of pressure they felt. The whole world was watching.”

At that point, a reporter from the New York Times interrupted to declare the answers unsatisfactory. He pointed out that he lived in Beijing, together with his family. He demanded better, and fuller, information. “Fortunately,” says Bekedam, “the Jims had warned me. They said if this happens, what you need to do is distance yourself from the mission.” Schnur was sitting next to Bekedam and whispered that he was prepared to offer a more realistic figure. “There was this crisis at the press conference… We knew there were more cases than were being reported,” recalls Schnur.

Bekedam wondered what to do. “The media for sure was going to start getting angry. You could feel it,” he recalls. As he listened, he asked himself whether it was time to intervene in the proceedings, and give Schnur the opportunity to give a different account. If so, he would undercut the authority of the mission members. He might also anger the Chinese government, which had acknowledged only 37 cases. At the same time, if he did not intervene, he was sure the media would turn against the WHO and accuse it of being part of a cover-up. In addition, WHO might lose the trust of the public around the world, including the Chinese public. He had only an instant to make a choice: stand up and publicly contradict the mission members, or stay silent and deal with the situation some other way.