How worms nearly wriggled into political monsters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2004, 12:00am

Compared with economic and political issues, the discovery of bloodworms in some swimming polls could be dismissed as a small matter.

Posing no serious threat to swimmers, the unwelcome presence of bloodworms is disturbing, but by no means disastrous, nor necessarily scandalous.

No wonder City University biologist Richard Cheung Yun-hing, investigating the worms, expressed dismay over the controversy on Wednesday. He accused the media of wasting his time and blowing the problem out of proportion.

In an editorial on Thursday, the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po raised similar questions about whether the time, effort and resources spent on the government investigations were reasonable.

'Does the bloodworms incident reflect the anti-rationality culture? Why has such a trivial matter been blown up into a big storm? Whether it is a case of vandalism or that some pools have provided breeding grounds for midges is no cause for alarm,' it said.

One month after the bloodworms were first spotted, the lingering mystery over how they made their way into at least six pools has never caused panic.

But some regular users of public swimming pools may feel unhappy and perplexed. They have been waiting patiently for the government to explain what might have happened and what it plans to do to make sure pools are clean and suitable for swimming.

Normally, the matter would have been quietly resolved or faded from public limelight.

But bureaucratic bungling, miscommunication and the arrogance of officials in handling the tiny creatures have raised concerns about bigger issues.

After two days of confusion in a row over the findings of a government-led investigation on bloodworms at the Tai Wan Shan swimming pool, officials and experts convened a media conference on Wednesday to attempt to clear the air.

The Leisure and Culture Services Department (LCSD) denied there had been a cover-up.

But an assistant director of the LCSD, Paul Cheung Kwok-kee, admitted he had not previously mentioned that empty pupal shells had been found. However, he insisted he had no intention of hiding the truth.

Pending more investigations, questions over the presence of the bloodworms may take more time to be answered.

But there is a pressing need for leisure services officials to repair the damage to their image and credibility in the wake of conflicting remarks.

The revelation late on Thursday that there was natural breeding of bloodworms at the Hammer Hill Road swimming pool contradicted previous statements by officials.

Worse still was that by raising the possibility of vandalism against the background of a labour dispute with lifeguards, officials significantly tilted public opinion in that direction.

It created a perception - that now appears to be wrong - that it was a case of vandalism rather than environmental hygiene and the design of pools. This perception was deepened by police inquiries.

While the officials may not have subscribed to the conspiracy theory, they appear to have suffered a mental block. From day one until last week, they were unable to maintain an open mind to the possibility that some pools could breed the creatures.

Even if that turns out to be the case, people will not react in anger as long as they are given a full account of why it happened and what will be done to remedy the situation. But they are now sceptical and cynical because officials have been economical with the truth.

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani emphasised the importance of 'sweating small stuff', in not allowing minor issues to spiral into major disasters.

That the bloodworms issue has metamorphosed into a near political and public relations disaster at election time underscores the importance of effective monitoring of the administration by lawmakers and society.