6 January 1998

The Democratic Party on Avian Flu: Urgently Address Medical and Political Crises

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."

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