Urgent email to Abdullah to ask Cabinet direct Health Ministry to give full and daily public update of SARS to restore public confidence in the government handling of the new killer virus

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Tuesday): I have just sent an urgent email to the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, urging the Cabinet tomorrow to direct the Health Ministry to give full and daily public updates of SARS to restore public confidence in the government handling of the new killer virus.

At the outset, I told Abdullah that I had hoped that it would not be necessary for me to email him on the SARS outbreak, but this had become unavoidable in the public interest of saving lives and ensuring public confidence as the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng had chosen to continue the policy - which had proved so disastrous in the dengue epidemic - to deny information to the people on SARS with his mantra of "no suspected SARS case".

In my email to Abdullah, I said:

"For several days, there had been a quiet, intense and snowballing panic among the people about SARS, as there is no public confidence in what the Health Minister and his officials are saying on the subject.

"I myself do not find it believable that there are no suspected SARS case in the country, although I do not know whether there is any confirmed SARS case or death.

"This is because of the numerous reports, whether in the media or from oral accounts, of people falling sick after their return from a tour of China, meeting the three criteria for SARS set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO): high fever of over 38 Celsius, dry cough and shortness of breath or breathing difficulties.

"Medical doctors in the government service have expressed their surprise and shock that despite many suspected SARS cases which meet the three WHO criteria, the Health Ministry has refused to take the Malaysian public into its confidence but has stuck to the stance of 'no SARS cases, no suspected SARS cases or deaths caused by SARS' in the country.

"Last night, all the Chinese newspaper night editions, Nanyang Siang Pau, Sin Chew Daily, Guang Ming Daily and China Press, carried front-page headlines about nation-wide concerns about the killer SARS disease in the country, but this morning, they were all directed by the authorities to remove the SARS story from the front-pages and put them in the inside pages.

"Such arbitrary manipulation of the media is not calculated to enhance public confidence in the government handling of the SARS threat in Malaysia but will only have the opposite effect.

"The government is only undermining its public credibility by continuing to claim that there are no suspected SARS cases when hospitals are setting up special quarantine wards while the four Perak DAP State Assemblymen who visited the Ipoh General Hospital yesterday were barred from entering Ward 1C where patients had been transferred from the Teluk Intan general hospital for suspected SARS.

"I am also very concerned about the safety of health workers, who have proven to be a very vulnerable group in the SARS outbreak in other countries, with high incidence of fatalities from doctors, nurses and health workers, as I understand that there are health workers in Malaysia who have been quarantined because of their contact with SARS cases.

"At this time of the lethal SARS outbreak, P.R. or public image should be the least of all concerns of the government, as its first priority must be to protect human lives and there is no better way to do so than by giving full, accurate and timely information about the SARS outbreak - with a daily public update report."

Chua was directed last week to furnish a comprehensive report containing the latest statistics on SARS to the Cabinet tomorrow.

There should be no need for such a Cabinet directive, as such a comprehensive report on SARS should have been made public regularly on a daily basis, as is done by other countries.

The least the Cabinet should do tomorrow is to make public the comprehensive report on SARS after its submission by Chua, as it is not only the Cabinet but the entire Malaysian population who are entitled to this information.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman