China 

Paranoia prevails in SARS' Ground Zero
By Wong Kwok Wah
and ATol staff reporters

HONG KONG - Triad gangsters who usually hawk pirated CDs in downtown Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui district have now found a much faster way to make some cash - selling cheap surgical masks.

However, government doctors are worried about this new street phenomenon, as these ineffective pieces of cloth might mislead users to believe they are safe from Hong Kong's outbreak of atypical pneumonia, or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which has now led the Hong Kong government to close schools for nine days and quarantine more than 1,000 people.

"Those face masks are for industrial purposes of fending off dust only. They cannot filter away any virus and therefore cannot protect users from infection. The worst [fear] is users falsely think they are protected and thus might become more prone to the robust atypical pneumonia virus, the spreading scale of which we are still not certain," said a doctor on condition of anonymity, as the government has strictly forbidden individual doctors to voice their concerns.

The government's unrepentant attitude of expending more attention on containing opinions than on tackling the virus could be far more harmful than those gangsters who are reaping a profit by collecting HK$10 (US$1.30) for every three cotton masks sold. It took more than a fortnight for health policymaker Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong to admit that the SARS virus has spread throughout the community. During the two weeks when Yeoh and his associates calmly urged the community not to worry and that the virus was maneuvering only within affected hospital wards, the number of non-medical people infected quietly rocketed (see chart).

Number of SARS-infected patients

Date

Medical staffers and students

Ordinary citizens

Total

No. deceased

No. discharged

14-03

29

--

29

--

--

15-03

37

--

37

--

--

16-03

42

--

42

--

--

17-03

61

22

83

--

--

18-03

72

39

111

--

--

19-03

87

58

145

5

2

20-03

94

71

165

6

5

21-03

106

91

197

6

7

22-03

111

106

217

7

7

23-03

119

123

242

8

7

24-03

126

134

260

10

12

25-03

132

154

286

10

14

26-03

142

174

316

10

16

27-03

148

219

367

11

19

Note: Non-medical patients were logged only from March 17 onward

In fact, the Hong Kong health authorities were well aware in the early days that the virus was not confined to hospital wards. Asia Times Online reported on March 17 (HK plays down pneumonia fears) that government doctors and nurses were instructed to treat every patient as if he or she had been infected by SARS, but at the same time forbade this bleak assessment of reality to be known to the community. There was even an order on hospital personnel to take away their face masks once outside wards so as to not to cause panic among the public.

"Had the public been properly warned of the severity of the virus and the possibility that it had spread within the community, the number of non-medical patients might not have grown that fast. A lot has to be attributed to ignorance," commented a government doctor.

Yet the public's awakening came ahead of the government. The decision to suspend schools was made only after a lot of parents decided to keep their children at home - which could be an offense under the Education Ordinance. Among these concerned parents were the son and daughter-in-law of Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive of Hong Kong. Tung, flanked by relevant policy officials, announced on Thursday evening a series of measures to combat the spreading of the virus, including the suspension of schools and the requirement of visitors to declare their health conditions. But he came short of explaining the rationale behind waiting until Saturday to implement the new measures, as if he had arranged for the virus to hold off on its assault on Friday.

"It can only be assumed that bureaucratic considerations had taken precedence over professional judgments," complained the government doctor who declined to be named.

A vast majority of opinions in Hong Kong blamed the present situation on mainland China authorities. The SARS began in Guangdong province, Hong Kong's neighbor. When the news finally broke out in the Hong Kong media, Guangdong authorities vowed immediately to find out how the information spread to the Hong Kong media rather than how the virus spread to Hong Kong residents. The provincial health authority also refused to furnish Hong Kong with detailed information on its outbreak.

News of the epidemic in Guangdong has been effectively suppressed since very brief public exposure in February. It is generally believed that the virus itself has not been suppressed as effectively as the information about it has been. On Friday, ATol correspondents visited hospitals in Guangzhou, Guangdong's provincial capital, and found that all staffs were on high alert. The person at the information desk pinched his nose relentlessly when asked where respiratory disease patients should go.

Chief Executive Tung confidently told a press conference on Thursday that under the government's leadership, Hong Kong would win this battle against the virus. There has yet to be a poll on how many Hong Kong residents take his words seriously. But it is known that at the very least, his own children took no comfort in his words, as they kept their children away from school as Grandpa Tung insisted schools should be open as usual.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.) 

 

 Mar 28, 2003








 


 
   
         
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