Lack of preparedness leaves us exposed to the risk of a nightmare like Sars

Albert Cheng argues that poor governance and a lack of resources mean Hongkongers are on their own in the face of the H7N9 threat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 3:02am

While news that a coronavirus genetically related to Sars has been found in the Middle East is worrying Hong Kong, the H7N9 bird flu appears to be spreading across eastern China. So far, there have been 14 confirmed cases, in Shanghai, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and five people have died. History seems to be repeating itself right in front of our eyes.

In November 2002, many Guangzhou residents rushed to buy vinegar and indigo woad root, a herb used in Chinese medicine, in an effort to fend off a mysterious form of pneumonia that was sweeping the province. The Guangzhou government and some medical experts tried to calm citizens by saying there was nothing to worry about. Later, when the virus spread and the situation deteriorated, it transpired that playing down the situation had inadvertently delayed treatment and prevention, making the situation worse.

At the time, the mainland authorities did not report these cases of the severe acute respiratory syndrome to the World Health Organisation and Hong Kong. So when Sars hit Hong Kong, we had no safeguards in place and the city suffered heavy casualties.

Now some are saying the new strain of bird flu is not that contagious and will not transmit from human to human.

Yet people cannot help but worry that it may be linked to the fact that 16,000 dead pigs were recently dumped in rivers in Zhejiang and Shanghai. The cities that have H7N9 cases are close to both places.

Moreover, there have been serious pneumonia cases of unknown origin surfacing in Shanghai hospitals recently, which have not been clearly explained.

Are the mainland authorities allowing history to repeat itself by refusing to report the real situation to the outside world?

How many people have in fact been infected with H7N9? Has this new strand of bird flu mutated so that it can now transmit between humans? These highly significant questions that affect public health must be properly addressed.

A critical question is: Is Hong Kong capable of fighting a new wave of virulent viruses?

With the new coronavirus from the Middle East and H7N9 from the mainland to worry about, the situation could be worse than what we encountered a decade ago.

But Hong Kong today is no better equipped to protect the city and ourselves than it was 10 years ago.

In 2003, Sars was spread to Hong Kong by a mainland university professor who came here to attend a wedding banquet. It took just one man to quickly spread the virus.

A decade ago, our doors were not yet open to individual mainland travellers. We did not have so many mainland tourists coming to the city. Now we have an average of 300,000 mainland tourists crossing the border every day. If one man could do so much damage in 2003, it's not hard to imagine the extent of damage that could be caused by so many mainland tourists.

Furthermore, we still don't have a clear picture of how serious the H7N9 situation is on the mainland. This unknown factor, plus the potential damage that could be caused by such a huge number of possible carriers, is something that we should really be worried about.

Public hospitals will be at the front of any pandemic. In 2003 when Sars attacked, our public hospitals were overstaffed, but they still felt stretched and stressed out coping with the outbreak. Today our public hospitals are understaffed, with some doctors in the emergency room having to work 30 hours non-stop. Plus there is a shortage of hospital beds. We are ill-equipped on all fronts.

Transmission rates of viruses are higher in congested and unhygienic living conditions. Today, many people are forced to live in subdivided units as small as shoeboxes because of ridiculously high rents. All these undesirable living conditions could help to spread the viruses. Once the viruses have gone into the community, the consequences could be unimaginable.

Our preparations for dealing with any pandemic are totally inadequate, whether in terms of living environment, medical resources or immigration control. Furthermore, we have an incompetent governing team, which makes the situation even worse.

In 2003, the Tung administration had capable and competent officials who took us through the Sars crisis and we eventually won a well-fought war. Today, it's a different story.

We should help ourselves instead of hoping to be helped by the administration. We must take the right health precautions in our daily routines to protect ourselves and our families. And the least the government can do is issue travel warnings to prevent Hongkongers from travelling to infected cities, including those on the mainland. Prevention is always better than cure.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.