Rats! Hong Kong finally beats Singapore at something

Yonden Lhatoo warns the city has gone back to the bad old days of poor hygiene as it reports the world’s first case of human infection by a strain of hepatitis E previously confined to rats

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 12:57pm

Back in Hong Kong after spending a few days in Singapore, I have to say I can’t help noting how our beloved city feels dirtier, shoddier and – some people may hate me for using the word – inferior in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong, because I have a massive chip on my shoulder about Hong Kong and usually bristle when anyone badmouths or disrespects the place I call home. But reality can be harsh, and with Singapore offering a truly eye-opening contrast during my recent stay there, I must admit I’ve been in total denial about how bad it has become here in terms of the living environment.

And I now find myself right in the middle of the ultimate wake-up call for all the Rip Van Winkles still in sleep-addled denial: the dubious distinction our city has just earned by reporting the world’s first case of human infection by a strain of hepatitis E that had previously been confined to rats.

The patient is a 56-year-old public housing resident recovering from liver transplant surgery. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong trying to figure out how the virus jumped from rodent to human have suggested he may have eaten food contaminated by rat droppings.

Rats ‘as big as kittens’ walk up staircases at Hong Kong housing estate

He could also have been bitten by one of the rats infesting the refuse chute next to the flat he lives in. Residents at the estate have complained of rodents “the size of kittens” scurrying up and down the stairs and around filthy rubbish collection points.

How worried should we be about this cringingly embarrassing world first for “Asia’s world city”?

“We don’t know if in future there will be a serious outbreak of the rat hepatitis E virus in Hong Kong. We need to closely monitor this issue,” researcher and top microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung said.

Yuen, by the way, is one of the scientists hailed as heroes for their work in battling the Sars epidemic of 2003, and we would do well to take heed when he warns that we have abandoned the higher hygiene standards we were forced to adopt during the crisis.

There’s no denying that we have by and large forgotten the painful lessons we learned about the need to keep our city clean after losing nearly 300 residents to Sars. Just look around us – it’s back to the bad old days again, and nobody seems to care.

“Back alleys now are very dirty with lots of rubbish. You can see rats that are bigger than cats,” Yuen noted. This is Hong Kong he’s talking about, not some third-world slum.

“Sorry to say, your garbage disposal system is not third-world, it’s actually fourth-world,” one of my Singaporean colleagues often tells me, referring to bins and plastic bags everywhere with their contents spilling out into the streets, waiting for collection.

Tell that to our bureaucrats who are content to quote the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s claim that the rodent infestation rate for the city fell to 3.5 per cent last year from 4 per cent in 2016. Rat infestation is “not extensive”, they say, and “generally under control”, although the official metrics “may not fully reflect the situation” in specific districts. That’s just great.

Hong Kong food department slammed for poor supervision of wet markets

They’re going to lay out some more rat traps in response to this troubling health scare and remind the public to be careful. That’s about it, because this city has far bigger priorities to debate and deal with, like independence advocacy and national security.

Contrasting an increasingly decrepit Hong Kong with spick-and-span Singapore may rankle in some quarters here, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could channel that resentment into a competitive “if they can do it so can we” drive?

Or we can remain mired in the usual “if you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back” mentality. At least we are more free than Singaporeans – and that includes the freedom to be molested by monster rodents. And we’ve finally beaten Singapore on the global stage. You could say we’ve won the rat race.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post