When Steve Jobs kicked the bucket, the satirical Onion news website ran this now-legendary headline: Last American Who Knew What The F*** He Was Doing Dies.
I felt something similar yesterday when the government announced that Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, would quit by the end of the year.
Since the handover, Hong Kong has come under unprecedented health pressure from the outbreak of rare or new diseases. In every health crisis, from the outbreaks of bird flu and Sars onwards, Tsang has been at the front line of containing the disease and telling the public what they needed to know to forestall panic. In a health crisis, misinformation and the lack of accurate news can be as dangerous as the outbreak itself, and this we have seen time and again in the mishandling of crises on the mainland.
In his calm and "only the facts" manner, Tsang unfailingly informs the media and the public about what has just happened, what experts know about the situation, what we need to know to deal with it and what the government is doing to contain and resolve the crisis. He gives the medical facts, explains them simply so lay people can understand, and puts them in their proper context to let people decide the levels of the problem and what precautions must be taken.
He does not exaggerate or play down a problem. If he doesn't know an answer, he says so. He offers information, not drama, to reassure the public. His presence itself is a source of confidence, an asset the government will find hard to replace.
Southern China has long incubated new and rare diseases and been the epicentre of outbreaks, leading, for example, to the 1894 plague in Hong Kong. If proximity to the mainland has been an economic advantage, it has been an epidemiological disaster. Given our long history of diseases, we need more public health professionals like Tsang. We can only hope his replacement will not disappoint. It's a matter of life and death.
- In my Thursday column, I should have written that police do not enforce the ban on idling engines, only traffic wardens and environmental protection inspectors do.