Government should warn against travel to flu-stricken mainland China areas

Albert Cheng says the alert system needs to cover all places outside HK, and be guided by concern for people's safety, not political motives

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

A video clip has been circulating online recently, showing a mainland tourist trying to avoid paying to travel on the MTR. When caught, the tourist tried to wangle his way out by requesting to see the "leader" at the station. The MTR employee responded by saying there was no so-called leader but proper rules and systems in Hong Kong. His answer left the mainlander speechless.

The rules and systems of which the employee spoke are built on core values respected and cherished by most Hongkongers. Unfortunately, judging from the way the government has been handling the issue of travel alerts recently, we seem to have become a city that is more controlled by leaders than guided by a proper system.

A proper travel warning system should cover all places outside Hong Kong that are frequently visited by Hongkongers and these areas should include popular destinations like Taiwan, Macau and mainland cities. Unfortunately, the current system excludes Taiwan, Macau and the mainland.

At present, despite the emergence of the deadly H7N9 bird flu virus in some cities in eastern China, our Security Bureau has refused to issue any travel warning, saying it doesn't have the mandate to do so.

This exclusion has given many travel agents the excuse not to refund customers who wish to change their plan to travel to the affected areas, forcing many travellers to stick with their itinerary. Anyone who falls sick while abroad could bring the virus back to Hong Kong and spread it in our community. Hence, this is not only an unscrupulous business practice, but also immoral.

It is the responsibility of our government to warn locals against travelling to affected places on the mainland. The current system that doesn't include the mainland in its purview is flawed. The government must plug this loophole as soon as possible.

Besides, it could issue verbal warnings to stop travel agents from organising tours to affected areas, especially the so-called educational tours for students to promote national education.

The government's reluctance to do anything raises the suspicion that it believes it is more important to follow the central government's order to brainwash our students than to protect their safety or prevent the virus from spreading here.

Along with the Security Bureau, the Education Bureau also deserves blame for doing nothing to stop these national education tours.

The decision not to issue travel warnings to affected areas on the mainland is a political gamble. If any Hongkongers got infected and died as a result, who would take the blame?

Our current travel warning system is biased and inadequate. Take the black travel warning the government has issued against the Philippines. It has nothing to do with travel safety as the decision was politically motivated; it was a protest against the way Manila handled the 2010 hostage crisis.

With the rising tension between the two Koreas, and North Korea warning foreigners to leave South Korea in the event of a war breaking out, some countries have stepped up travel warnings to their nationals. Are our senior security officials sensitive to the latest political developments in the region?

Our officials don't seem to realise South Korea is a highly popular travel destination for Hongkongers.

If Pyongyang really fired missiles at Seoul and a war broke out between the two Koreas, the consequences could be unimaginable with many Hongkongers stuck in South Korea. Who in our government would be willing to shoulder the responsibility?

Why not issue a black travel warning now, to prevent unforeseen troubles or even possible tragedies?

The government, led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, seems to have brought back the administrative style popularised during the Tung Chee-hwa era. This is the ostrich approach, being oblivious to one's surroundings and thereby avoiding having to deal with problems.

To effectively prevent a pandemic, we must do more than the bare minimum. The Tung administration's decision to handle the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis in a low-key manner when the virus first struck inadvertently helped it spread like wildfire in our community.

Today, we face a far more severe situation. With our open-door policy to mainland visitors, we are effectively inviting problems.

From the flaws in our travel warning system, to the way the government issues such warnings and how it might handle a possible H7N9 pandemic, it's clear that incompetent leadership has weakened our sense of crisis, putting the entire community at risk.

We must be prepared and help ourselves, instead of behaving like sitting ducks.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.