Sars stands us in good stead for new test

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 May, 2009, 12:00am

Swine flu has put the world on alert. Governments are working around the clock on how best to confront the disease - even if it just means buying time for scientists to produce vaccines. Meanwhile, the rest of the global community is increasingly nervous.

It feels all too painfully familiar in Hong Kong. Only six years ago, we were gripped by the terrifying mystery of what became known as severe acute respiratory syndrome. The memories of our desolated streets, wary eyes behind facemasks and that crippling sense of helpless vulnerability are hard to forget. But, as the saying goes: 'No pain. No gain.' Our experience with Sars seems to be the best medicine, in absence of a cure, for us - and the rest of the world - against swine flu.

The 2003 Sars outbreak forced us to recognise the inadequacies of our public health system. It exposed poor procedures and insufficient capacity to deal with a large-scale outbreak. It also highlighted serious shortcomings in official information-gathering and communication. For our unpreparedness, we paid in lost lives and livelihoods.

But it is also important for us to remember how we won our fight against Sars. In our collective vulnerability, our community found strength in solidarity. Health workers made tremendous sacrifices, some with their lives, to care for victims. Individuals and organisations pulled together resources to get through shortages, and offered encouragement to those on the frontline.

Indeed, we have come a long way since Sars. Today, in the face of this new global health challenge, the city remains calmly alert. Hongkongers are already doing their part, adopting personal and household hygiene precautions. The media has been keeping the government vigilant by peppering officials with questions. Private hospitals, clinics and medical practitioners have offered their help. To be sure, the government has so far been quick to respond. Learning from those harsh lessons of 2003, our officials appear to be on top of things, offering the community assurances of their readiness, and communicating frequently with the public.

Many no doubt are working hard behind the scenes, as well. Since the outbreak in North America, the government has put in place important measures, such as classifying swine flu as a notifiable disease. International observers have commended the government's swift action; Time even writes that it 'now reacts to public health threats like a well-oiled machine'.

A huge component of that 'well-oiled machine' is the Centre for Health Protection (CHP), which was set up after the Sars outbreak. It has subsequently cleared much of the bureaucratic muddle and filled the many gaps that plagued the early Sars response. The CHP pulls together Hong Kong's emergency response, infection control, surveillance and research on communicable diseases. Its role, essentially to keep politics separate from science and research, has proved effective during several avian flu scares and other outbreaks. Its true test will be how our public health system responds to swine flu now that swine flu has crossed our borders. The community's expectations are high; so are the stakes.

The community knows that, with a better system of disease surveillance, collaboration of first-class academic research, co-ordination of public health professionals, and the lessons from Sars, Hong Kong stands a much better chance of winning this war. Many experts agree that the city has an advantage and that we have a lot to offer in terms of helping other places cope.

The government is fully aware that missteps along the way will not only pose a risk to lives and the economy, but will have enormous political ramifications.

Times like this call for a little trust and faith - even from sceptics like us.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA