Who Masked The Truth?

I have a confession to make, and as it is not something I do very often (or indeed ever) I had better spit it out up front: I have not so far worn a face mask at any time during the present outbreak of Wuhan virus. Not on the MTR, not on buses, not on minibuses (all of which I took last week) not in the coffee place where I get my daily brew, not in the fast food establishment where once a week I indulge in a happy meal. Admittedly the toy is still in quarantine.

What has led me to this apparently radical (or foolhardy if you prefer) decision? Well I have tried to analyse the situation based on the facts, on the science rather than the hysteria. I have also tried to put those facts in perspective.

If you have the symptoms of a cold or the flu (coughing, sneezing, fever etc), which are similar to those of the virus, then you should stay at home until you have recovered. If you must venture out, either because of urgent business or the need to consult a doctor, then wear a mask so as not to infect others. In short, the face mask is to protect other people from the illness that you are carrying. Many of the ones on sale here do very little to protect you from picking up the virus from someone else.

All the experts seem to agree that the best thing to do whether you feel unwell or not is to frequently wash your hands. That is good advice.

Of course we are all reading the sensationalised media reports, but there are also broader perspectives on reliable news websites such as CNN about viruses in the USA. As you read this column, millions of Americans are suffering from seasonal flu and over 10,000 have already died. Did you miss the news about the emergency meeting of the World Health Organisation and the press conference to announce the US travel advisory? Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything as neither took place. Did you read that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide die every year from seasonal flu? And the average number of flu deaths per year in Hong Kong alone is 431? Probably not, as it is old information so it doesn’t count as “news”.

By way of comparison, the number of confirmed and suspected Wuhan cases in the mainland is over 50,000 and rising with the number of deaths now over 500 as of last Thursday lunchtime. We read about the deaths but did you know over 1,200 have recovered and that number too is rising.

Specifically on corona viruses, the Economist magazine reported recently that the Wuhan variety is the seventh to be identified. Two apparently have no impact on humans, while the two deadliest strains to date are MERS and SARS. The first had a mortality rate in excess of 30 per cent, the second around 10 per cent. Wuhan at present is averaging around two per cent. If it is indeed the situation, as some allege, that there may be significant underreporting in the number of cases either because of deliberate official understatement, or because some sufferers have only very mild symptoms, then that would suggest the actual mortality rate is even less than two percent.

Wherever there is controversy, politicians and other ne’er-do-wells will not be far behind. Some have seized upon the outbreak as another stick with which to beat the government. Certainly there are aspects of the handling which could have been better, and incredibly Macau has out organised us at least in terms of mask distribution. Whoever expected to be saying that at the time of the respective handovers? It is a measure of how low government credibility here has fallen that the community has even resorted to the old practice of clearing supermarket shelves of rice and other necessities at the first sign of trouble. Surely we should have put that kind of panic reaction behind us decades ago.

And what should we make of the formation of a new trade union for staff in the medical sector and for its first action to be to call a strike? At a time of health crisis? How the heroes of 2003 must be turning in their graves.

While doctors and scientists worldwide burn the midnight oil in an effort to develop a vaccine, how should we handle relations with the mainland and mainlanders? First we have to recognise that we are part of China and our communities are extensively inter-related. We import from there much of our food and other essential commodities. Certainly we should be minimising cross-boundary traffic for the time being, especially persons coming from the epicentre in Hubei. Surely, we can do that without vilifying the whole nation. What are we doing to help them in their hour of need? Have we forgotten already the mainlanders coming to rescue our economy in 2003?

I have to declare an interest here as I have family members normally based in Beijing who recently visited Shenzhen for the new year. They came over the border to see me, we had dinner together (see my Facebook page) and hugged warmly before they went back. They were monitored for symptoms on the way in, and again when they went back. Is that really so inadequate?

Let’s be clear, the Wuhan coronavirus is an unpleasant illness and we should do all we reasonably can to prevent its entry and spread. But cool heads make more sense than blocking roads and supermarket bunfights. Our response must be calm and proportionate. Most of us will not catch it, most of those who do will survive.

My attitude to those who insist on wearing masks is similar to my attitude to religion: I am not a regular churchgoer myself but you are welcome to believe in any creed which gives you comfort. If you want to queue up all night to spend 50 dollars on a mask that normally retails for five, then all I can say is: thank you. Just don’t expect to see me behind you in the queue.