No plague, just blight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 May, 1996, 12:00am

Despite the initial panic, the inflammations and itching suffered by residents of Kai Lok Temporary Housing Area turned out not to be symptoms of plague. For that we should be truly thankful. Plague is easily enough controlled by modern medicine and Hong Kong's health care system would have been able to cope.

Indeed, the chances of an outbreak in modern Hong Kong are relatively small. There has been no recorded incident of plague in the territory since World War II, although it regularly ravaged the overcrowded Chinese communities here in the early years of the century. Nevertheless, the mere mention of the disease conjures up images of mediaeval epidemics and grim horror stories of rats and vampires. The panic which gripped the world during the brief outbreak in India two years ago - and the reaction of the international tourist industry in particular - should give Hong Kong pause. Even without human casualties, the plague can bring economic disaster as travellers boycott infected areas.

But even as we breathe a sigh of relief that Kai Lok's vermin are not plague rats, we should not overlook the fact that vermin carry disease. The filthy conditions in the estate cannot simply be washed away or blamed on poor hygiene among the residents alone. It would no doubt help to avoid ringworm and other skin diseases if residents did their bit to keep themselves and their surroundings cleaner. But a society as wealthy as Hong Kong has no excuse for keeping them in such poor housing in the first place that hygiene becomes a problem.

Temporary housing should be just that: temporary. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a policy of making new immigrants and former squatters wait seven years for permanent housing - provided they are not left to languish in squalor in the interim. The buildings should be regularly maintained, cleaned and replaced when they begin to rot.

Hong Kong has played host this week to an international conference on public housing, from which the Housing Authority originally excluded any publicity on the scandalous conditions in temporary areas.

Hong Kong has much to be proud of in its public housing programmes. But if the Government and the Housing Authority feel its temporary housing lets them down, the answer is to remove them and build better alternatives, not to hide them away and leave the residents to rot.