HK govt hasn’t learnt any lesson from the 2003 SARS crisis

February 24, 2020 17:53
The Hong Kong government has been accused of being reactive rather than proactive in the battle against the novel coronavirus, and failing to heed the lessons of the 2003 SARS crisis. Photo: HKEJ

After shutting down several border crossings, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had announced that starting from Feb. 8 all people entering Hong Kong from mainland China must undergo 14 days of mandatory quarantine.

However, the problem is, while the inbound travellers have to undergo the mandatory quarantine, their family members who are living with them under the same roof don’t have to.

In case a traveler undergoes self-quarantine at home, there is a possibility that he or she may pass the deadly virus to the family members unknowingly, thereby substantially boosting the risk of a full-blown community outbreak of the coronavirus in the city.

Dr. Ho Pak-leung, clinical associate professor with the Department of Microbiology of the University of Hong Kong’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, on Feb. 7 slammed the new quarantine measure of the government as being both loose and sloppy.

Ho pointed out that among all the confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus infection in Hong Kong, around half the patients contracted the infection through family contact.

In the meantime, Dr. Deacons Yeung Tai-kong, cluster services director of the Hospital Authority (HA), on Feb. 8 told the media that there were only about 16 million surgical masks left in the HA’s inventory, which can only last for around one month or so.

Although the Correctional Services Industries (CSI) is now working round the clock, in three shifts every day, to produce face masks, it can only turn out some 2.5 million pieces per month, which can’t even meet the monthly demand of frontline healthcare workers, let alone civil servants of other government departments.

Amid this situation, Chief Executive Lam, in a rare reach-out move, called upon various sectors in society to provide means for the government through which it can source face masks.

All these things beg the question: did the government forget the lesson of the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic?

During the SARS outbreak, a total of 1,755 people in Hong Kong were infected, leaving 299 dead and a whopping 17 percent death rate.

Among the SARS patients, six were healthcare workers in public hospitals.

During the crisis back then, there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses, involving items such as surgical masks, small-sized N95 respirators and protective goggles.

Even though the HA made an effort to buy more PPE through various foreign consulate generals in Hong Kong, the supply was still unable to meet the demand in the public hospitals at that time.

It was against such a backdrop that the "Report of the Hospital Authority Review Panel on the SARS Outbreak" recommended that the HA should always maintain a stock of PPE that is enough for three months.

Also, the report advised the government to build three infectious disease centers (IDCs), each of which would be able to provide 100 isolation beds.

Unfortunately, so far only one IDC has been completed and come into service -- at the Princess Margaret Hospital -- and nobody knows when the government will deliver the remaining two, or if it is ever going to do so at all.

Even more ironic is that compared to 2003, the number of isolation beds in the public hospitals has actually come down by 610 as of 2018, even as Hong Kong's total populations had increased by some 650,000 over the past decade.

It is projected that by 2036, the elderly will account for one-third of the city's total population.

This raises the inevitable questions: How possibly can Hong Kong cope with another massive infectious disease outbreak with so few isolation beds? Are we coming to the point where we will need to build the Hong Kong version of China's Xiaotangshan makeshift hospital?

The stark truth is that the Hong Kong government has been only reactive and uncoordinated in the efforts to fight the coronavirus. It appears the administration doesn’t necessarily share the universal common approach of “prevention is better than cure”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 13 

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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JC/RC

Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)