Populist Governance No. 2

Hong Kong’s Great Flu Kerfuffle

Hong Kong from the Peak on a summer’s night, by Stuck in customs, with Creative Commons licencePrimary school kids in Hong Kong must have been delighted today. A few have taken sick with influenza in recent times, so things have been a little glum. But the government can always pitch in and help. Late last night it did just that, announcing that the lower schools would close two days early for an extended Easter break. And this at a time when no more students than usual are suffering from seasonal maladies. Manna from Heaven!

So what gives?

Executive decisions made in dark of night are usually the bailiwick of third world dictators, but no self-respecting tyrant would bother to direct schools closed after a short run of outs with the flu. Even the somewhat ambivalent South China Morning Post editorial this morning mentioned that the reporting of flu-like symptoms has been a little down on average this year. The World Health Organisation backed that up, calling it “just regular seasonal flu”.

But the Standard, true to its sensationalist form, preferred to quote statistics on overflowing paediatric wards. And wavering towards the back of its print edition, the SCMP pointed out that around a thousand people die from the flu in Hong Kong every year.

That sounds alarmingly high until you remember that Hong Kong has almost seven million people and millions of visitors every year. In percentage terms, and at the very most, the figure is around 0.014%, not a whole lot of anything.

Sneeze at me, go on. I can take it.

But the concern, such that it is, has focused on the deaths of four children, apparently from flu-like symptoms, and the reporting of 184 cases so far that could be lumped into the same category but were probably colds or mild flu. In my district there are a few sick kids around, so something is going through the schools. But they’re not dying, and neither are they likely to.

It’s a curious fact that in Hong Kong – one of the most densely populated locales on Earth – the spectre of socially transmitted disease is a very serious harbinger indeed. So the Secretary for Food and Health, York Chow, seems to have felt no compunction in boldly declaring one afternoon that no schools would close and then deciding, along with two bureaucrats and a professor of microbiology, that with no change of events all primary and special schools, nurseries and kindergartens would close. Suffer the high schools, presumably.

His reason? “This is not just an issue on public hygiene, but also one concerning public sentiment”.

Portrait . . . She is hiding something, by Intersellar1, with Creative Commons licenceRead that quote again carefully: he didn’t say the public was overly concerned, but that the decision was made to address public sentiment. As I wrote last week, the unelected executive branch of the Hong Kong government has developed a peculiar from of populist governance, sans democracy. Its policy formation and operating procedures are increasingly, or perhaps now just more obviously, being dictated by expected or presumed public reactions to specific events. And there is often something to ‘hide’ – to push away, to cloak in clear public view.

It’s not so much that four kids have died, but that at least one of them – 25% if you’re counting, but it’s not a robust sample – died because he was turned away from a hospital, even though he had a high fever. Relatively few people are shouting that little factoid to the steel grey sky: in Hong Kong, this sort of thing happens. Read the newspapers for a week and there’ll be a story on botched blood transfusions, children given to the wrong mothers at birth or a perfectly healthy man suffering months of radiation treatment for the cancer he never had. It’s Howard the Duck come to Hong Kong, but don’t laugh – these things have been reported in recent times.

One of the more interesting, and certainly the most alarming, observations in Hong Kong’s Health System, a volume on public health-care reform compiled by the good people at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Community Medicine, is that fewer people died of SARS in 2003 than were victims of mishaps in the operating theatre. SARS, for those of you who don’t recall, was Hong Kong’s modern-day minimalist plague.

Folk art, by liza31337, with Creative Commons licenceThe greater tragedy, then as quite possibly now, was going on behind closed doors. Sound like a mournful country song? Well, it’s hard to tell who’s singing. They’re starting to wear surgical masks again, muffled, quiet, while the government awaits another chance to continue its adventures in ad hockery.

And so the globe spins on, with Hong Kong stubborn in its stillness. On days like these, the world puzzles me even more.

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