Hong Kong: System Failure

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When Betty Tung, wife of Hong Kong's beleaguered Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, toured the city's SARS-slammed Lower Ngau Tau Kok housing estate to pass out hygiene kits, she dressed up for the occasion. Clad in a face mask, a protective cap, goggles, a plastic disposable gown, gloves and shoe guards, Mrs. Tung alarmed local residents. The protective suit was more elaborate than an ICU doctor would wear — if ICU doctors had ready access to that sort of gear — and local media had a field day criticizing her.

Mrs. Tung's misguided mission exemplifies the Hong Kong government's half-measured response to SARS. Medical staff are facing shortages of vital protective equipment even as more health-care workers are afflicted. Medical resources are stretched to the limit, but the government has been slow to consolidate the SARS patients scattered among more than 10 hospitals. "There is mismanagement within the Hospital Authority," says Dr. Lo Wing-lok, chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association. It's not just a lack of hardware but also of will and common sense. Hong Kong authorities are screening airport passengers but have been slow to institute health checks along the busy border with Guangdong province. "This government is unwilling to take up matters with [Beijing]," says Allen Lee, a Hong Kong delegate to China's National People's Congress. "It's pathetic."

Hong Kongers are usually resigned to such incompetence. But last Friday, encouraged by the sacking of China's Health Minister and Beijing's mayor, legislator Albert Chan made a formal call for Tung's resignation. Whether or not Tung goes, his administration's credibility has already become a victim of SARS.