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A Wake up Call

(Letter to Hong Kong - 2003.4.6)

The atypical pneumonia is the final straw that breaks Hong Kong's psychological self-defenses. Only weeks ago, We were still looking incredulously at our brothers and sisters across the border when they queue up in stores for vinegar and ancient Chinese herbal medicines to fight this mysterious disease. Our guards were down, as we watch the television news drama from a safe distance, like innocent bystanders not thinking that, one day, the same can happen to us on our soil. When the inevitable happens, with our completely unguarded border, the SARS hits us like the 911 terrorist attack in New York. The psychologically unprepared people of Hong Kong got so nervous that not only did we scrounge furiously for the same ancient Chinese medical cures but also for masks, gloves, rice and even air tickets to skip town. At this point in time, many of us would easily buy any outrageous rumors, including one clearly unconfirmed hoax of naming Hong Kong a 'plagued city' made up by a teenage schoolboy on April fool's day!

As the war still rage in Iraq, our own medical army are also waging war with this unfamiliar enemy. Unlike the United States and its allied soldiers in the frontline of Iraq, our army has to fight an enemy that is invisible and crafty in the way they move. Our medical personnel have no weapon advantage over this tough and omnipresent foe. The rate of casualty is high, actually even higher than that of the allied forces in Iraq. They have only one advantage to count on beside their own strong sense of duty and dedication and that is all citizen of Hong Kong are clearly on their side. It is our heartfelt tributes; our lavish praises and prayers that will keep them supplied with the courage and gallantry to overcome the enemy.

As the allied forces are closing in on Baghdad, I hope that we too are also zooming in on the SARS for the final onslaught. We must prevail as losing this war means far more than simply losing businesses, trade and recording a temporary bigger budget deficit. Instead of being distracted by these side issues, the community should really be focussed on saving lives. We should be talking more about how to volunteer to support our already hard-pressed medical personnel. How best to protect their health and minimise their casualties. What are the best means to disseminate public information and to handle malicious rumours. Who should be handling the diplomatic channels and to assure the world that we are already making the best endeavors to fulfil our international responsibility in trying to contain, as far as possible, the SARS from gaining further grounds elsewhere on this global village that we all share.

In the last few days, I have received many concerned phone calls and emails from family and friends overseas offering support and assistance. It helps me to feel that we are not alone in fighting this virus 'outbreak'. But if we ask again on what were the attitudes of nations and their leaders in the world towards Hong Kong now? The answer is rather more disappointing.

Whilst Hong Kong watched on like an uncaring bystander as China mainland struggles with the problem earlier, the attitude of the international communities towards Hong Kong's outbreak can only be described as biased, selfish and even at times hostile. Quite rightly so, they should be keeping watch with concern on the situation of Hong Kong. The World Health Organisation is doing this job professionally and we are rendering them the fullest co-operation in the most transparent way. Right too, that they should be careful about guarding their own borders. The mistake of Hong Kong is a lesson to learn. But these should be done in a reasonable manner in commensurate to the efforts that we are making and the small size of the problem now gradually being brought under control. But in reality, what do we have to face? We find borders closing on all our 7 million citizens irrespective of their individual state of health, trade conventions barring us from attendance and the world blaming Hong Kong for this 'disaster of nature'. In fact, it seems that Hong Kong is even more isolated than the allied troops who are fighting the unholy war on Iraq without the sanction of the United Nation and with countless anti-war demonstrations worldwide in the background.

No one from the outside, for example, offered help in medical expertise. No one offered advanced medical gears and equipment to help us win this war more quickly. No one even bothered to thank the medical staff of Hong Kong for fighting this battle for mankind even though some of them bravely lost their lives in the frontline. Is this the prize or penalty for Hong Kong to pay in handling this 'war with nature' with such high transparency and in such an utterly conscientious manner?

The SARS travels and infects at lightening speed if left entirely unchecked. It takes victims by scores at a time. But in typical Hong Kong fashion, it is still slower than our news, sensational and captivating, taking audiences by the millions at a time. With the whole world now watching, I should really be saying billions, and not millions at a time. It shows what a vital role that our media plays in modern days.

The People of Hong Kong clearly dislike the press gag on Chinese soils. Their citizens, and in the case of SARS, even us have been denied of crucial medical information in the early stages of the outbreak of the disease. In the end, we have lost critical time in preventing SARS from spreading at the rate it did. However, the completely free style of our Hong Kong's media can also cause problems of its own kind. Though I must say on record that the great majority of the media in this instance have behaved very responsibly in providing positive, useful public information to Hong Kong. It is a most important service. Even more amazingly, many have done so on automatic gear before the Government has the chance to properly gear up for the task of overall co-ordination. But there are still those who seeks profit on sensationalism. Jumping to hasty conclusions on a wide spectrum of related issues in preaching dooms day scenarios. If the media is filled with these mixed signals of half facts, half speculation and even in some worst cases, reports of pure fictions, then it will take us untold efforts in deciphering what is the true situation in Hong Kong. In the worse case scenario, it might even send the wrong signals overseas causing much damage to the territory's reputation and trade. Now that the Legislative Council has approved a $200 million emergency fund to the Government, I hope that the Administration would gear up its publicity efforts and better co-ordinate the dissembling of public information both locally and abroad. I think that the Chief Executive could, say, ask Mr. Stephen Lam, his experienced former spokesman, to head the campaign with the media and foreign diplomats in Hong Kong.

The Great nation of China faces many atrocities without the benefit of a free press. Yet through self-reliance and self-help, they take no time to stage comebacks and are still growing from strength to strength. The US media is one of freest in the world and they became a tower of strength after the 911 event in helping the American people maintain their spirit and hope. Even now, the US media has by en-large put aside their differences with President George Bush and support the nation at war. The call of public duty, in times of adversities, is perhaps more important than personal differences in the way we see the world. The free press can be one of the most important cohesive forces of the nation.

The People of Hong Kong have the best of both worlds. We too share the Chinese long tradition of self-reliance. We have the most lively, vibrant and influential press. We need both these qualities and a sense of public spirit now to pull us out of this pit of low confidence. The war on SARS should be a wake up call. Do not pull the rug under the feet of our own soldiers at war. Let us all play in the same team to win the battle over nature's mischief and the opinion of the world.







(2003年4月7日 成報)

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