On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Get on with the fight against the outbreak

One classic case is Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee
Hwa, who has come under fire from the demanding islanders for his handling of
the SARS issue, although there is very little he can do.

The best brains in Hong Kong's health services are working overtime and under
intense pressure to find a cure and they should be commended for tracking down
the virus in record time.

The finger pointing is really unnecessary because it does not help to solve the
SARS problem. It does not make sense to blame health officials for the outbreak
but they should be penalised if they attempt to keep the situation under

China's Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Major Meng Xuenong were
sacked from the Communist Party by the leadership to show it was serious in its
handling of the SARS problem.

Zhang has been former President Jiang Zemin's personal doctor since the late
1980s when the latter was still Mayor of Shanghai. His mistake, like many other
politicians, was to lie to the public.

The sacking of the two and China's admittance that it had not been transparent
are unusual and such loss of face is tremendously hard to swallow for the
Chinese leadership.

But the lesson from this episode, for the Chinese leaders as well as other
Asian leaders, is the habit of resorting to secrecy as a first step in crisis
management is no longer applicable today.

Those responsible for internal security should realise that bad news today
would not lead to social unrest and panic. That may have been the case of
street-style politics during the 60s.

But times have changed. Such secrecy can no longer work in the Internet age.
While the state can attempt to stop the media from highlighting the SARS issue,
it will not be able to stop reports over the Internet.

In fact, when rumours broke out via SMS that a fashion outlet at a shopping
complex in Petaling Jaya had shut down because its workers were inflicted with
SARS, it was the print media that took the task of informing the public that it
was not true.

It was the print media, lambasted by some quarters for supposedly
sensationalising the SARS issue, that took the trouble to send reporters to the
shopping complex to determine the true situation. Not the electronic or online

Then there are those in the tourism industry. There can be no doubt that people
will now travel only when absolutely necessary. No responsible employers would
ask their workers to travel unnecessarily and most overseas holidays would be

It is irresponsible for any tourism official or politician in charge of tourism
to suggest that the press should not highlight the SARS issue. Turning a blind
eye, for the sake of political and economic expediency, is not the way.

The role of the media is to inform and educate the public and, in the case of
SARS, the Malaysian press has generally played a meaningful role. Politicians
should learn to accept criticisms, not just praises.

Last week, New Straits Times editor-in-chief Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad correctly
pointed out ''it will be folly for the Health Ministry to follow China's
example. There were sloppy attempts early on to manage information, but the
media's careful uncovering of the incidence of the disease has done more to
assuage public concern.''

He wrote in his column On The Record on April 23 that every precaution must be
taken, with enough visibility to show that the Government was both earnest and
effective in dealing with the potential scourge.

''The irony of disinformation is that there can be a severe backlash if that is
what it is shown to be – a sophisticated attempt to bluff your way out of
trouble. Open and rapidly communicative economies such as Singapore and Hong
Kong don't even bother to quell the fear factor, and err on the side of

''On the other hand, Malaysia tends to err on the side of under-reaction. In
previous disease outbreaks, such as the coxsackie and viral encephalitis,
information curtailment can be argued to have worked to stem panic – the
pathogens did not spread too far and wide. But SARS is different.''

In Malaysia, I still believe the health officials have handled the flow of
information reasonably well, despite the initial hiccups, but the reprimand to
the Chinese dailies seems unnecessary.

The criticism and counter arguments between the Chinese dailies and the Health
Ministry are unhealthy. Both sides should get on with the real work of fighting
the health menace.