Avoid the mess of legal action on Sars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am

The Sars inquiry in the Legislative Council and the grievances expressed by victims of the outbreak preparing to bring legal actions tell essentially the same story, only from very different perspectives.

Since November, the select committee has been probing the way in which various aspects of last year's outbreak were handled. Their focus has been on the decision-making process and the actions of officials from Tung Chee-hwa down.

Our reports today concerning the bid by victims for compensation demonstrate the tragic repercussions of some of those decisions on individual members of the community. Their accounts are harrowing and remind us of the suffering that can ensue when the health system breaks down.

The inquiry deals with the cause while any legal action will, no doubt, also concentrate on the effect. At the end of these two painful processes, whatever their outcome, it is to be hoped that victims will feel that justice has been done. More important for Hong Kong, however, is to ensure that lessons are learned and a repeat of last year's terrible events avoided.

When the Sars inquiry began it had all the potential to become a politically motivated witch hunt designed to bring down certain senior officials. Mercifully, the worst excesses of political opportunism have been avoided during the course of the hearing. Perhaps the debate on political reform gave the rival parties something else to worry about and took some of the heat out of the investigation.

The result has been a sober and thorough inquiry into the way in which people in positions of authority, from health chief Yeoh Eng-kiong to hospital doctors reacted to the crisis as it developed. It has provided a more complete picture of the problems they faced and, with the benefit of hindsight, the mistakes many of them made.

New light has been shed on the inability of Hong Kong officials to obtain the information they needed from their counterparts in Guangdong. Deficiencies in the system established for tracing the contacts of Sars victims have also been identified. Meanwhile, the manner in which various hospitals went about isolating patients and protecting their staff has come under intense scrutiny.

The report when finally produced will, no doubt, provide an in-depth assessment of where our system - and those working within it - failed. It should make sure this information is put to good use. Concrete proposals to help fine-tune and expand upon the recommendations already made in previous reports would be helpful.

Victims and their lawyers will, however, be looking for something different from the report. They will want to see who is blamed and consider whether this helps their case.

Unfortunately, the courts do not provide the best forum for settling complaints of this nature. The process is time-consuming and costly. It is traumatic for both the victims and those against whom their actions are directed. While there is clearly scope for such litigation, the legal obstacles that have to be overcome often leave plaintiffs in such cases disappoint- ed.

It would be better if the government could satisfy the victims in a way which persuades them to avoid resorting to legal action. Providing adequate compensation and doing so quickly is the best means of achieving this. Solving problems that have arisen concerning the release of money from the fund for Sars victims would be a good start.

Efforts have been made on a wide range of fronts to guard against a repeat of the Sars outbreak. So far, they have been successful. But the inquiry and the sad accounts of the victims remind us that, in future, safeguarding public health must remain the priority.