The public face of the coronavirus fight

May 06, 2020 10:50
It is said that Dr Chuang had not taken a day off for weeks on end to bring to the public the latest news about COVID-19. Photo: RTHK

Amid the widespread disenchantment of the Hong Kong public with the administration, one would think that whoever represents the government in the fight against the coronavirus would have the most thankless job.

However, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection, has earned the respect and admiration of the public as she presides over the daily media briefings on the latest developments concerning the outbreak.

Although the bearer of bad news during the peak of the infections in the city, the health expert has carried out her job with aplomb so much so that no matter how grim the data, her calmness and clarity have always prevailed.

Her soft voice and maternal mien do help in reassuring the people that health authorities are doing everything in their capacity to contain the outbreak, and that there is no need for panic and despair as long as the public remain vigilant and cooperative.

It is said that Dr Chuang had not taken a day off for weeks on end to bring to the public the latest news about COVID-19, especially at the height of the outbreak in the city in late March and early April.

And when she skips the regular 4:30pm media conference, because there is no new case to report, trust that social media would be abuzz about it. Her absence is good news but many people miss her when they don’t see her on TV.

Says one netizen: “I love her so much, although she’s not someone I really want to see.”

Dr Chuang was once asked how she felt about working without days off. Refusing to draw attention to herself, she replied her supervisors were even more hard-working, adding that among her colleagues her work was the least demanding.

Hers is far from an easy job. Often, she finds herself being grilled by reporters over serious developments such as the spread of the virus in Lan Kwai Fong and at a hotpot gathering in Kwun Tong.

But she has always passed the ordeal with her straightforward answers and calm demeanor.

Of course, Dr Chuang is far from perfect. She can be tedious at times. Once in a while, she would also mix up some of the details of the COVID-19 cases.

But people have come to overlook her minor faults, if any, and see her as a reassuring presence in the midst of the raging pandemic.

Perhaps part of her success as a spokesperson for the health authority lies in the fact that Hong Kong has fared relatively well in the fight against the coronavirus, which has now claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people worldwide.

But that our city has been able to flatten the curve, with no new local cases for over two weeks now, we owe to ourselves. Although we have not been under a lockdown, unlike some other countries and regions, we have acted fast to contain the contagion and observed social distancing and good hygiene.

A hundred days after the first infection in the city was reported in January, Dr Chuang was asked about her feelings. She said: “Together we were able to fight the virus and survive.”

Indeed, Hong Kong has performed better than many other jurisdictions, recording four fatalities and a 0.4 percent mortality rate so far.

This is quite an admirable record, but, interestingly, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has not benefited much from it as many Hongkongers continue to see her actions as politically motivated or done in Beijing’s favor.

According to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, Lam’s popularity rating has rebounded to 27.7 percent as of April 14, from a record low of 18.2 percent in mid-February. Still that’s quite far below the passing score of 50 percent.

Since protests broke out against her now-withdrawn extradition legislation in June last year, the chief executive has found it hard to regain public trust and sympathy.

People tend to focus on her flaws and failings, such as when she asserted that people didn’t have to wear masks as long as they didn’t feel unwell, and when it became clear that masks were important in containing the spread of the virus, her government failed to come up with measures to steady the supply of the protective equipment, while other jurisdictions such as Macau and Taiwan were able to respond well to the situation.

Now, with the COVID-19 situation as well as the supply of masks in the city having stabilized, plans were announced to provide residents with reusable masks. There’s also this “grand alliance” of pro-Beijing personalities promising to give away 10 million face masks.

Makes us wonder where all these masks were when we needed them.

Regardless of her low popularity, I would surmise that the CE finds her job a lot easier these days, compared to the latter part of last year, when she appeared on the brink of being eased out as social unrest grew.

Some observers believe that she is hesitant to ease the social distancing curbs – or at least she wants to act as slowly as possible in easing them – to prevent the resurgence of the protest movement.

The fact remains that she can’t expect to gain the popularity and esteem accorded Dr Chuang, who works within the confines of science and outside the realm of politics.

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EJ Insight writer