26 February 2020
People scramble to purchase face masks at a pharmacy in HK as concerns mount about the spread of the new China coronavirus. Authorities in the city are being accused of not moving fast enough to combat the threat from across the border. Photo: HKEJ
People scramble to purchase face masks at a pharmacy in HK as concerns mount about the spread of the new China coronavirus. Authorities in the city are being accused of not moving fast enough to combat the threat from across the border. Photo: HKEJ

Pro-establishment figures fret over slow response to Wuhan virus

Even as it enjoys temporary relief from a lull in the pro-democracy street protests, the Hong Kong government is facing a potential new crisis due to the China coronavirus outbreak that has revived memories of the deadly 2003 SARS epidemic.

The city’s principal officials are struggling to come up with measures to deal with the threat of a pandemic spreading from across the border.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee has rejected accusations that the government has been sluggish in its response to the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, but her words don’t seem too convincing.

Talking to the media late on Wednesday, Chan, when asked by reporters if there was a second case in Hong Kong of a person testing positive for the novel coronavirus, the official indicated that she wasn’t up to speed with relevant information on the matter.

Now, given the possibility that the health chief herself isn’t on the ball about the spread of the infection in the city, it reflects poorly on the government and suggests that authorities don’t have a firm grip on the most basic information about the epidemic.

That automatically begs the question: how can the public be convinced that the government is capable of prioritizing the citizens’ health and life when it is so poorly informed about the disease?

By contrast, the Macau government has proven a lot quicker and much more decisive when it comes to guarding against the outbreak of the Wuhan pneumonia on its soil.

Hot on the heels of a press conference on Wednesday morning confirming its first case of Wuhan pneumonia, Macau authorities quickly announced — afternoon, the same day — that all those holding a Macau identity card can buy 10 face masks per person at designated pharmacies upon presentation of their identity cards, in order to prevent any mad scramble for them. Only after 10 days can the same Macau identity be used to buy the masks again.

In Hong Kong, the government didn’t come up with any such emergency policy announcement.

It is understood that the reason why the government didn’t carry out the same measure on face masks is because government officials feel there are still plenty of supplies on the open market.

Besides, both the Hospital Authority (HA) and the Government Logistics Department have stockpiled enough face masks for emergency needs.

At an inter-departmental press conference on Thursday night, in response to media question whether the government would follow Macau’s approach on face masks, Acting Chief Executive Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said government officials are keeping in close contact with suppliers, and believes that new shipments will come in next week.

Cheung admitted that an emergency meeting with mask suppliers was on the agenda as soon Friday.

Cheung sought to reassure people that health authorities have enough masks to last the next three months, Bloomberg reported.

According to the analysis of a local political figure, even though the Hong Kong government has carried out a lot of preventive work against the Wuhan pneumonia, it was still unable to allay public concern about the spread of the disease, not least because the authorities have failed to disseminate the related information effectively.

A person within the government admitted that they would need to enhance transparency on disease prevention efforts in the days ahead, such as releasing numbers on face-mask stocks in order to give peace of mind to people.

While the face masks supply is a concern, what has bothered citizens even more is the senior officials’ equivocal stance over whether Hong Kong citizens should continue to travel to Wuhan amid the pneumonia outbreak.

The mayor of Wuhan on Tuesday has publicly urged people not to travel into or out of the city.

Yet it wasn’t until two days later, after the first Hong Kong case of a patient’s respiratory samples preliminarily testing positive for novel coronavirus, that the Hong Kong government finally advised the public to avoid unnecessary travel to Wuhan in Hubei Province.

If it is unavoidable to travel to Wuhan, put on a surgical mask and continue to do so until 14 days after returning to Hong Kong, the government said.

The absence of a ban against Wuhan has prompted suspicions among some observers that the government may have refrained from saying “no” to Wuhan due to political concerns.

At the inter-departmental press conference on Thursday, a reporter asked Cheung “why no travel warning has been issued to Wuhan? Is it, you know, a political decision because the government don’t want to embarrass the Central Government?”

“…As I said earlier, we’ve already advised school authorities, for example, to hold off the so-called experiential tour to the Mainland as a lot of schools organize this during the holidays. This will last till the situation has settled, has stabilized, later on. So, we will provide, from time to time, so-called travel advisory to people, the stakeholders concerned…” Cheung said in response. 

Following the developments over the past week, some in the pro-establishment camp are said to be quite by unhappy, complaining about the government’s failure to put up a high-profile fight against the epidemic.

The ham-handed approach may prompt people to conclude that the administration isn’t taking the new virus seriously enough, the establishment figures warn.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 23

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.