6 January 1998
The Democratic Party on Avian Flu: Urgently Address Medical and Political
Democratic Party Chairman Martin Lee and senior party leaders Dr. Yeung
Sum, Fred Li and medical spokesman Dr. Huang Chen-ya today held a press
conference to issue a harsh criticism of Chief Executive Tung and the Hong
Kong government's inept handling of the "bird flu" crisis.
The democratic leaders identified two serious problems -- one medical,
one political -- and observed that the medical crisis had clearly been
exacerbated by the political mishandling of it. The party has asked for
an urgent meeting with the Chief Executive to raise their concerns and
later, for an independent commission to investigate and account for government
errors in responding to the disease.
It has been revealed that precious time was wasted in fighting the disease
as Tung and his administration did not have the will to stand up to mainland
authorities and demand the end of exporting chickens to Hong Kong. From
the beginning of the crisis, medical experts have agreed that it was probable
the H5N1 virus originated in Southern China, and advised a ban on the importation
of mainland chickens. We have since learned that Hong Kong officials first
had to defer to Chinese officials and convince them to announce the chicken
importation ban as their own initiative.
Party Chairman Martin Lee commented:
"Public health must be the first concern -- not political considerations.
Hong Kong is supposed to have "a high degree of autonomy" from
the central government. Yet in the midst of the avian flu crisis, the decision
to stop importing chickens from the mainland was apparently not within
Hong Kong's autonomy.
This episode shows the importance of a democratic and accountable government:
in a democracy, elected leaders must be seen to be responsive to public
concerns. Tung, his government, and the provisional legislature ignored
-- and are continuing to ignore -- the public's demands for a full accounting
of the bird flu crisis and government actions to combat it. Rather than
addressing the public's concerns openly, it seems that Mr. Tung has decided
to quarantine himself from citizens and the media.
As we said in our briefing on December 31, the Hong Kong government
has failed -- and continues to fail to keep the public informed. Their
first reaction was to cover up the threat the disease represented, then
to blame the media for reporting it. The Health Department reacted slowly
and attempted to hide the facts, then the Agriculture and Fisheries Department
bungled the Hong Kong-wide chicken slaughter. We strongly urge the government
to design and implement a long-term strategy for dealing with this disease
-- and a plan for responding quickly, in a transparent and open matter
the next time a crisis appears on the horizon."
Health Spokesman Dr. Huang Chen-ya noted that:
"The Hong Kong government is still not on top of the situation
from a medical perspective at all. The slaughter of the chickens has not
made the H5N1 virus go away and may indeed have exacerbated the situation.
The World Health Organisation has already criticised Chinese authorities
for not properly disclosing the disease. The failure of mainland officials
to communicate the extent of the infection of chickens and humans may well
have increased the chance of this virus mutating or being contracted by
other animals. Precious time has already been lost. If there continues
to be denial on the part of mainland authorities and a lack of forward
planning on the part of the Hong Kong government, there is a danger of
a wider outbreak of the disease or a mix with common influenza.
Finally, this is not a short term problem. From the pattern of cases
thus far, this appears to be a virus that tends to become more rather than
less virulent. The Department of Health must be on high alert for some
time hence, must conduct proper surveillance, and must be prepared to dramatically
increase manpower and spending to combat this disease over the long term."