As Hong Kong battles to keep the Wuhan coronavirus at bay, the government should not forget the dark days of the Sars outbreak 17 years ago and needs to avoid the mistakes that caused people great pain, a survivors’ group has warned.
The Hong Kong Sars Mutual Help Association, a group formed by more than 300 survivors infected by severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, urged the government to be proactive, including banning non-locals who have visited Wuhan within the past month from entering the city, or even denying entry to all mainland Chinese visitors if the outbreak worsens.
The association made the call as the contagious new coronavirus – a Sars-like virus – spread on the mainland from Wuhan, the outbreak epicentre. Hong Kong had recorded five confirmed cases by late Friday, and 236 other suspected cases as of 8am.
The city’s fight against the coronavirus has been an emotional reminder for many Sars survivors, who hoped the government would not repeat the missteps of 2003, said the group’s chairman Alex Lam Chi-yau.
“I am very disappointed with the government’s preventive approach. Some recent decisions only show it has taken the new virus lightly, particularly when it came to not asking rail passengers arriving from Wuhan to fill out health declaration forms with contact details,” he said.
“The Sars outbreak is a painful memory to us. The government shouldn’t forget it. Now it seems to be taking the interests of travellers above those of Hong Kong people.”
Lam said it was “unacceptable” that the government refused to ban visitors from Wuhan, knowing that their visits posed a high health risk to the city.
In 2003, Sars infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong, killing 299 including eight medical staff. Globally there were 8,096 infections and 774 deaths.
The unprecedented crisis not only highlighted the risks Hong Kong faced as a global transit hub, but also exposed the fragility of the city’s health care and prevention system.
Lam said many association members still suffered from side effects of the Sars treatment, including degenerative bone disorder caused by steroids, chronic joint pain and emotional problems.
He vividly remembers developing a fever and coughing symptoms on April 13, 2003, and being put in an isolation ward for three weeks while receiving Sars treatment.
“I am among the lucky few who fully recovered and did not develop any side effects of the treatment,” he said. “But many of our members still suffer from bone disorder, chronic pain and other joint problems because of the Sars infection.”
Lam said the ordeal was too painful for some members even to this day. “Many have developed post-traumatic stress symptoms and don’t even want to talk about their suffering any more. Some also avoid going out to meet people,” he said.
He also called for the government to provide more help for those affected by the treatment, saying financial support for many survivors was cut off after a few years without taking into account the long-term impact.
Surging fears and the lack of information over the new virus also reminded Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, of the Sars period.
Yip said the suicide rate in 2003, 18.8 people per 100,000, was the highest since records began in 1981. There were 1,264 suicide deaths that year. Citing their suicide notes, he noted that some elderly people killed themselves at the time because they were worried they had contracted the virus and could spread it to their family.
He also warned that while epidemic prevention required that patients to be isolated, the mental health of those in quarantine should also be taken care of.
Yip said that while some activities that meant a lot to people, such as visits to the elderly at Lunar New Year, might have to be cancelled because of the situation, visitors could consider telephoning instead.
Top microbiologist Ho Pak-leung, a doctor at HKU back in 2003, recalled how nervous he was during the Sars outbreak.
Ho said the government had missed the period for epidemic prevention as it had just been an observer of the Sars outbreak when it initially broke out on the mainland.
He said officials only started to trace the original patient – a 64-year-old medical professor from Guangzhou in neighbouring Guangdong province – after medical staff in a Sha Tin hospital got infected.
“That year, [officials] were totally disconnected from medical workers and residents,” Ho said, adding that then-health minister Yeoh Eng-kiong had said Hong Kong did not have an outbreak in the community.
He felt the current health secretary and the director of health had the same problem – not being on the same page as residents and frontline medical staff.
“All the scenes in 2003 could be repeated now in a second version,” he said, referring to painful memories such as infected medical staff dying and a community outbreak.
For ordinary Hongkongers, memories of the Sars crisis are not too far away, either.
Charles (not his real name), the owner of three pharmacies, said the surge in demand for masks then was similar to during the Wuhan outbreak now.
“Back then, we had to ration masks. Let’s say we wanted 10 cartons of masks; we could maybe only get three,” Charles said.
He noted that this outbreak is during the holiday period, meaning fewer workers to move supplies of masks.
“A lot of logistics companies are off during the holidays, so some supplies are still on the mainland,” he said. “Things may only improve after they return to work on the eighth or tenth day of the Lunar New Year.”
He said a reasonable price for masks was about HK$60 to HK$80 (US8 to US$10) for 50 masks, although some agents had raised the price to HK$300.
Charles said most masks came from the mainland, with the exceptions being 3M’s N95 and some brands from Taiwan. However, Taiwan banned the export of masks on Thursday to ensure a stable supply locally.
“It is also uncertain if mainland-made masks can be shipped to Hong Kong, as there may be fears as to whether those masks were free of virus,” he said. “We can only see if the situation improves after the Lunar New Year.”
It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.