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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The fuss over the flu

Budget Tai-tai is one column that I'm looking forward to in TODAY paper... the wit, the veracity, the preciseness, the humor... and although I don't always agree to her points (of view), I would always welcome a view that is coming from another perspective; who knows, I could be wrong, and dead wrong at that. Enjoy reading!
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by Tabitha Wang, news@newstoday.com.sg

05:55 AM May 15, 2009

I WAS passing by Wan Chai on my way to a dinner with friends last Friday when the bus I was in hit a massive traffic jam. Everybody on the top deck craned their necks. "What is happening?" asked an elderly woman.

"They're letting out the people who have been quarantined at Metropark hotel now," the woman next to her replied.

I peered down. Television cameramen were stacked five-deep, some with stepladders a metre high for best vantage view. Policemen had to hold back a crowd. Some excited people were armed with cheery fake flowers.

The doors opened, a group of people walked out and everyone went wild. Flashbulbs went off and a cheer rose through the crowd, so loud that they could be heard inside the air-conditioned bus.

"They're out, they're out," the old woman said, almost in tears.

The scene of delirium was reminiscent of the time hostages were rescued from the Taj Hotel last November. There was the same euphoria and the hotel guests were being treated almost like conquering heroes.

Except that they had done nothing more heroic than spend seven days in a four-star hotel eating, partying, blogging and generally whinging about their lot.

The Hong Kong government's swift action in quarantining some 350 guests after a Mexican guy who had stayed there was found to have the H1N1 virus was called "draconian" by some. The guests had been deprived of their civil liberties, others argued. They were effectively suffering under house arrest.

House arrest? Suffering? While I sympathise with those businessmen who had to cancel million-dollar deals and mothers who were cooped up with restless kids during that period, I think what they had gone through was hardly suffering.

Sure, the food could have been better. After all, these people had come to a Chinese region but woe betide anyone who forces another to eat Chinese food. Even so, after a day or so, some were getting catered meals brought in by their embassies while everyone else was offered free food from restaurants and fast-food chains.

They received so many gifts from well-wishers that they couldn't carry them home at the end of the quarantine. One British couple managed to collect 41 boxes of unused gifts and vouchers, totalling more than HK$33,000 ($6,255) for donation.

Every day, yet another Hong Kong official publicly apologised for keeping them there. "Please don't hold it against us," the officials kept saying. "Come again, we will give you freebies galore to make up for your free board and lodging."

Even so, the government was still taken to task by critics who called the quarantine "overkill". Overkill? Excuse me, this city saw more than 300 people die from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) the last time, so I think it is entitled to be more than a little wary.

The outcry has led the health authorities to declare a no-quarantine rule with regard to the flu now but it looks like we're relaxing our vigilance too soon. The World Health Organization (WHO) still believes a pandemic is imminent and, just two days ago, Hong Kong confirmed its second swine flu case (but as he was caught at the airport, the quarantine point is moot).

Having gone through Sars in Singapore in 2003, which effectively caused the whole country to be quarantined, I don't think the measures were too extreme.

Haven't these critics heard of "better safe than sorry"? I take that back. I'm sure they have because, during the height of Sars, Singaporeans and Hongkongers were apparently either denied entry or given extra-stringent checks at airports overseas. At that time, showing a Singapore or Hong Kong passport has the same effect as covering yourself with sack cloth, ringing a bell, and yelling: "Unclean, unclean."

Actually, the one who should be apologising is that 25-year-old Mexican who came here despite the lockdown in his country. News reports said he already had a fever and sore throat but was travelling - for pleasure presumably as he was with his girlfriend.

He was discharged around the same time as the hotel guests and asked to be whizzed straight to the airport. No interviews to the press, not even a single word of "sorry" to those he had inadvertently inconvenienced.

But then again, given the mood of the average Hongkonger (many of whom are angry that this one incident caused them to fear for their lives and for their city's tourism reputation) maybe he was better off scurrying away before a lynch mob formed.

Maybe he too felt it was better to be safe than sorry.

Tabitha Wang still has 4,683 facemasks leftover from her bulk-buy frenzy on May 1 so you don't have to worry about her.

From TODAY, Comment, Budget Tai-tai – Friday, 15-May-2009






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