Published: 00:24, January 23, 2020 | Updated: 08:39, June 6, 2023
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Trust, collaboration key to tackling public health hazards
By Paul Yeung

Hong Kong is facing another public hazard on top of the social unrest that has been prevailing for months. A new strain of coronavirus was identified this month after a mysterious pneumonic epidemic started spreading from Wuhan in mid-December. Nine people have died from the virus so far, and there have been more than 400 confirmed cases. Zhong Nanshan, the well-known SARS expert, suggested on Monday that the virus could be transmitted between humans. The new epidemic inevitably invokes Hong Kong’s memory of the SARS nightmare in 2003.

Tackling the disease outbreak is a public health issue. According to the World Health Organization, “public health” is defined as “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society”. More specifically, public health does not involve only medical science, but also the art of politics. From the medical perspective, we all know that we should listen to the advice of medical professionals and take personal hygiene seriously. From the political perspective, there are three critical aspects that need to be noted.

Firstly, the political situation in Hong Kong could have a bearing on the handling of this public health crisis. Guarding public health is a public good, which requires mass participation. Trust among the stakeholders is crucial to this collective endeavor. However, our society has been seriously divided over the past few months, and social unity is fragile. It is time for all Hong Kong people to work together to defend our community against the health threat. Moreover, the government will have to play a key role in mobilizing resources and implementing responsive measures in the face of the public health hazard. The distrust of the government built up in the past few months may render the responding measures hard to implement. Therefore, it is time for the political and social leaders from all quarters of society to unite and support the SAR government in leading the city out of the health crisis.

It is time for the political and social leaders from all quarters of society to unite and support the SAR government in leading the city out of the health crisis

The second aspect is related to the Chinese mainland. As the outbreak originated in Wuhan, there could be negative public sentiment toward mainland authorities. This negative sentiment could be exploited by some anti-mainland groups to instigate more violence, creating further chaos. Reassuringly, the central government has responded swiftly and aptly to the epidemic.

President Xi Jinping issued an important directive on Monday, saying that the virus must be “resolutely contained”, and that all cadres must make “the safety of people’s lives and their physical health” the top priority. It was stressed that transparency remains the best defense against rumors and social panic. The following day, the central government warned cadres not to cover up the extent of the epidemic, stressing that anyone who withheld information will face severe punishment. All suspected infection cases involving people who have been to Hubei province in the past 14 days and with the onset of fever, pneumonia or respiratory-related symptoms must be reported by doctors and monitored by health authorities. The swift and decisive response from the central government is the result of the painful lessons of the SARS crisis in 2003. The responsive actions also reveal the institutional capability of the mainland’s political system.

Last but not least, we should not forget there is a global framework for combating the disease. The World Health Organization is working closely with China to tackle the crisis. An incident management system in line with standard protocols for any public health risk has been activated across the three organizational levels of the WHO -- the country and regional offices and headquarters. According to an official statement released by the WHO on Jan 9, China has strong public health capacities and the resources to respond to and manage respiratory disease outbreaks. Hence, we should recognize the fact that our country is playing an increasingly decisive role in handling health crises, and it deserves the trust from the Hong Kong community.

Public health is a local, national, and global issue. Unity and trust among all stakeholders is the key to quickly tackling any such problems or crises. Just as writer J.K. Rowling put it, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

The author is research officer of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.