SARS reveals Hong Kong at its worst

SCMP may 7

There are still so many unknown aspects of Sars that authorities must be forgiven for sometimes seeming to stumble over the best responses. But the crisis has revealed some troubling attitudes and, coincidentally, shed light on other issues.

First, let us look at secrecy, the damage it can do and the advantage, in difficult circumstances, of having as much information as possible in the public domain. For more than two weeks, I have been trying to obtain from the Health Department the number of non-Sars pneumonia cases and deaths - and the age of the patients - so far this year, or at least until the end of March. Such data is routinely collected and will, one day, be published. So why not now? Is the department scared, or is it just too much effort for the information bureaucrats?

I seek the information in an attempt to put Sars into perspective and to see whether Sars reports are influencing the number of non-Sars pneumonia cases - data which, doctor friends say, could be useful. The definition of Sars is not entirely precise. In Canada, doctors found that the coronavirus was not present in many cases. As a result of such uncertainties and lingering public suspicions that the government is playing down the number of Sars cases, it is important to know whether there has been any significant change in the number of other pneumonia cases. The data would help keep Sars cases in perspective: last year, there were 3,000 pneumonia deaths in Hong Kong, or about the average daily number of Sars deaths over the past fortnight. It is also quite possible that the death rate among those under 70 is not much higher than for other pneumonia strains. I am not suggesting a cover-up, merely that the bureaucrats do not seem to understand the meaning of access to information. It is this sort of attitude which leads others to hysterical decisions, such as Taiwan's quarantine for visitors from Hong Kong.

Next, I have to wonder at the penny-wise, pound-foolish attitudes of the government and hospital authority bureaucrats. Is it not an extraordinary indictment of them that the South China Morning Post has had to launch a campaign to buy frontline hospital staff the best protective equipment? I recognise that not all disease-control experts think the Barrierman suits provide optimum protection. But from the way the suits have been snapped up by most hospitals, and from the complaints from hospital staff about the widespread lack of basic safety equipment, it is obvious that the bureaucrats have been penny-pinching or lazy, or both, which has probably cost lives.

The cost of protection may be running at $2 million a day, but what is that compared with the $11 billion just given away by the government in an attempt to stimulate the economy? Some of that money will directly help businesses. But most will go to middle and upper-income people and firms whose livelihoods have not been significantly affected. As an economic stimulus, it is also inefficient. The impact of the salaries and rate rebates will be delayed, and most of the money will probably be left in the bank anyway. Hong Kong's problem before Sars was excess savings because of fears of deflation and unemployment. The banks are bursting with liquidity. It is better to spend a few billion now on a cleanup of the city - and, as a very short-term measure, hand out restaurant vouchers to locals and free hotel rooms to visitors.

As for offering relief to the hard hit, one could not fail to notice Hang Lung Properties' initial rejection of the request from commercial tenants in Amoy Plaza for a three-month extension to a rent moratorium - a decision which it reversed yesterday following public criticism. One day, we will learn more about who was responsible for what in terms of the management and maintenance of Amoy Gardens. The government's report on the complex makes alarming reading.

Maybe the Sars episode will signal the end of the hero worship of property developers, as home owners remember how much profit they, and the government, have made. I have, in this newspaper, often remarked how developers appeared to own the government, which has done their bidding to try to keep profits and prices high. Now, it seems, this is quite literally almost the case. Thanks to new disclosure rules, Hutchison Whampoa has revealed that it owns more than 5 per cent of the Tung family company, Orient Overseas International Holdings. Whether this is the total investment of Li Ka-shing and his family cannot be known, but it raises troubling questions about the links between Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Hutchison, particularly as Mr Li is not afraid to speak up on political matters affecting his property interests. It makes the Cyberport affair, when a Li family company received preferential treatment on a grand scale, even more dubious.

Political leadership is partly about being upfront and decisive. But equally it is about trust. The populace clearly does not trust the business cliques who surround Mr Tung. Episodes like Antony Leung Kam-chung's car tax scandal and the government's surrender to the vested interests of stock exchange dinosaurs over supervision are relatively small matters. But they are all too typical, and they add up.

As for trust in doctors, their efforts to find suitable Sars treatments are to be admired, not criticised. However, it should also be remembered how vulnerable Hong Kong has become to infectious diseases due to years of gross overprescription of antibiotics, which has created bacterial resistance to what were once very effective treatments.



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