Why incompetence, ignorance can be more lethal than coronavirus

February 10, 2020 17:32
Customers queue up to buy masks in Hong Kong. The government has performed poorly and impractically when it comes to devising preventive measures against the epidemic, the author says. Photo: Reuters

Although China had put the entire city of Wuhan on lockdown on Jan. 23, the unprecedented step failed to stop the deadly novel coronavirus from becoming a national epidemic.

One reason for Beijing’s failure to stop the disease from spreading is that as many as 5 million people from the capital of central China's Hubei province managed to seize the window of opportunity and flee the city before the lockdown came into force.

As of Sunday, the number of confirmed cases in the mainland has already exceeded 40,100, with the death toll surpassing 900, and the numbers continue to rise.

In the face of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) has remained both weak and incompetent.

On Jan. 14, the WHO was being very equivocal over whether there was limited human-to-human transmission, saying that while there was such a possibility, there was no clear evidence yet showing limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus.

And on Jan. 26, the organization assessed that the regional and global risks posed by the coronavirus outbreak were only high, and the risk posed by the coronavirus was very high in China.

Yet, within just a matter of four days, the WHO, after convening a meeting of its emergency committee, declared the Wuhan outbreak a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later warned that confirmed cases of coronavirus being transmitted by people who have never traveled to China could just be the "tip of the iceberg", Agence France-Presse reported.

Tedros' remarks came as members of a WHO-led "international expert mission" flew to China on Monday to help coordinate a response to the outbreak.

In my view, as an international organization charged with overseeing global health issues, the WHO shouldn’t have allowed expert judgment to take a backseat to political rhetoric.

In particular, the fact that the WHO was dragging its feet over declaring the rapid spread of the Wuhan virus a global emergency indicates that it has failed to live up to professional standards and provide an accurate judgment of the situation.

Simply put, the organization has failed to fulfill its duty in preventing the global spread of a new disease.

Likewise, the Hong Kong SAR government has also performed poorly and impractically when it comes to devising preventive measures against the epidemic.

First, as we all know, it has already been confirmed that the novel coronavirus can transmit either through droplets or close contact among people.

As such, the most efficacious way to avoid getting infected through droplets in human-to-human transmission is for the entire population to wear surgical masks at all times.

The importance of wearing masks can’t be overstated because apart from those who have already shown symptoms, there may be other “invisible” patients moving around in the community who do not wear masks but spread the virus in the community.

Wearing face masks is key to containing the spread of the disease.

However, we heard some our officials saying that only those with fever or respiratory infections need to wear them.

The fact that our officials, including the chief executive, the secretary for food and health, the director of health and others have not urged our citizens to put on masks suggests that they have not only failed to fulfill their duty but also have no common sense.

Luckily, ordinary citizens have much better common sense about disease prevention than our government officials, and are fully aware that wearing face masks is instrumental in protecting their health and meeting public health standards.

However, the sad thing is that the city is now experiencing a serious shortage of surgical masks. A lot of our citizens had to queue up or even camp out overnight in chilly weather in recent days just to try their luck in getting a box of those masks.

Perhaps our chief executive should learn from her Macau counterpart and start building up a sufficient stock of masks in the coming days.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 5

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Dr Stephen Ching Tang-foon is an associate professor at the Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Hong Kong.