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Clean Talk

 (Letter to Hong Kong ¡V 2003.6.8)

I called to all citizens of Hong Kong on this same program a little over two months ago to treat SARS as a serious ¡¥wake up call¡¦. Two months later, the problem has gotten worse before it gets better. With the World Health Organisation¡¦s travel advice now lifted, we are at last seeing lights at the end of a long dark tunnel. However, Hong Kong is not quite out of it all yet, as SARS is now much more than just a medical problem. The contagious disease has grown and spread its evil effects to become also an economic, social and political menace. The scar it has left to the inner fabric of Hong Kong¡¦s health is deep and the shadow that it casts will no doubt last a while longer.

Whilst the best medical cure for SARS is still very much a subject for further medical research and academic debates, the Government has been quick to prescribe political and financial cures for all other non-medically related symptoms. The $1 billion financial injection would hopefully bring our ailing economy back to its feet. The ¡¥Team Clean¡¦ is set to change mindsets and will try to make a real difference in creating a clean Hong Kong life-style once and for all. Then, hopefully, we can also keep up the vigilance on a continuous basis. An internationally renowned expert team is to review our readiness in facing another SARS like crisis. In the process, it might just help to vindicate Hong Kong¡¦s track record in the handling of this nature¡¦s mischief in the wider international arena. After such a major set back, the whole city is more than happy to pay almost any price to bring businesses back to normal. Despite the short absence, we already miss that buzzing cosmopolitan city filled with oversea visitors that we have always taken a little too much for granted.

However, like everything else in this ¡¥free¡¦ city, the whole package to re-launch the ¡¥post-SARS¡¦ Hong Kong is ¡¥not free¡¦ from controversies. The economic package has gone down relatively well. It is often easier for Governments to spend than to save. Nonetheless, few people in business would actually believe that the small dose of financial medicine will work real wonders. But still, it is at least a helpful step in the right direction. The rest must be up to the businesses themselves to offer generous trade discounts and promotional packages. As far as that is concern, Hong Kong has always been good at it and we are already seen to be in full gear.

In meeting the social aspects of SARS, the community had together mourned our dead with dignity and pride. These heroes in our medical profession have rightly been accorded the highest tributes. We also voluntarily paid out of charity in handsome form to look after the financial needs of the SARS affected families. Community leaders would sing and religious groups would pray in countless mass activities to lift our saddened spirits. Even now, I already feel that Hong Kong is actually ready and keen to soldier on. However, it would be nice to round it all off, on the first day of July, by the handing out of a good-looking sum of the Chief Executive¡¦s Medals of Honor to those who are truly brave and deserving in the risky fight against SARS.

The ¡¥Team Clean¡¦ proposals under the stewardship of the Chief Secretary, Donald Tsang, are both forward looking and tough. They meet public expectations and have, no doubt, succeeded in conveying a serious ¡¥mean-business¡¦ message. The only sceptical comments now are on a common trial to judge that whether or not the Administration has the capabilities to deliver these high promises in action.

The sceptics are not without good reasons for their cynicism. It was not that long ago, shortly after the ¡¥bird-flu¡¦ bungles, when the outraged Administration decided to scrap the municipal councils and re-organized its entire health and hygiene functions. We were assured then that the new Government structure will provide better co-ordination and greater efficiency. It is high time to put these undertakings to solemn tests.

Dr Donald Leung, the former Chairman of the ill-fated Urban Council was sometimes nicknamed ¡¥The Mayor of Hong Kong¡¦. The title is used with great respect, considering what Mayor Rudi Giuliani of New York has achieved in the rebuilding of New York after 911.In Hong Kong now; there is this sudden window of opportunity, that our free minded citizens are all focused on health issues. We all seem ready to adjust that delicate balance where individuals are prepared to forego a little bit more of their treasured freedom in exchange for a healthier community life-style. A new balance that recognizes the fact that people living so closely together need to accept some personal sacrifices. We now look for leadership and the call has been answered. Even for the Chief Secretary, with the solid public support that he enjoys and all his powers to wield over the Government¡¦s machinery, it would still be considered an outstanding achievement if he manages to thoroughly clean up Hong Kong. I think it rings rather well to remember him as ¡¥Chief secretary-cum-Mayor Donald¡¦ if he manages to turn Hong Kong into not only the most affluent and modern city of China, but also one of its cleanest!

In my view, the cleaning up act of SARS is much more than just gushing water down back alleys and fixing obscure broken pipes. The political fallouts from SARS will need to be washed out as well sometimes soon rather than later. The act of the Government to ¡¥come clean¡¦ will mean a lot to its citizens and to help regain its tarnished international confidence. The chapter of SARS cannot be closed until the community has been told of the possible mistakes made and what plans are put in place to avoid them in future. As of today, there are still far more questions than answers.

The international expert group lead by the Secretary for Health and Welfare will no doubt provide part of the solution on especially some of the more urgent, technical issues. But it cannot possibly provide the whole solution to the wide range of problems that the Government faces. For example, the public would want to know, why given the limited experience of Hong Kong in dealing with epidemics, this group of international experts were not called in two months earlier to help with the control of the disease. Why the chain of command in the Hospital Authority can be so thin and vulnerable in the top echelon of the Headquarter that when the top two generals are taken out of action by illness, effective co-ordination between the regional cluster groups almost seized. When funds and supplies of protective gears and clothing are not in shortage, then ¡¥where have all the ¡¥supplies¡¦ gone, long times passing¡¦? Why is that frontline staff never seems to get enough of them? How come that accurate and timely information could not get through to the public in the early days of the epidemic and why is that essential communications has been so poorly coordinated. How and who decides on quarantine measures and what lessons need to be learnt from the slow re-actions to the Prince of Wales hospital and the Amoy Gardens situations?

No doubt, politicians; the media and public alike would want answers from an independent, reliable source. The international expert group might come up with some useful insights and we must give them a chance to work. I understand also that the real villain is SARS and not the health officials who are trying hard to help protect us from the disease. They might be a bit slow in times and appeared to be unable to bring this unusual villain under control but it must not be considered a crime if they are simply doing their work in good faith. Whilst we all take part to clean our own houses, front yards and back courts, let us all help the Government officials with a more understanding attitude to encourage them to be rid of this last scar of SARS that is still casting a shadow on Hong Kong.

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