Five proposals for Chua Jui Meng to restore public confidence in Health Ministry’s capability, professionalism and transparency in handling the deadly SARS outbreak

Media Conference Statement
DAP campaign to raise public SARS awareness at Jelutong market
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Wednesday): Yesterday’s briefing by the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng to Members of Parliament on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak and situation in Malaysia was a farce as Chua was not prepared to be fully accountable and transparent or was unable to answer penetrative questions by Opposition MPs, as for instance, the questions by the DAP MP for Bukit Mertajam Chong Eng as to how  the Health Ministry could declare  on March 31 that Malaysia was “free from SARS” and yet 24 hours later, admit that there were 44 suspected SARS cases – when a day earlier, there  was a case of SARS death of the patient from Jerantut in the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital or why the public and nation was not immediately alerted when the first suspected SARS case was reported very much earlier last month? 

Chua’s unsatisfactory briefing to MPs yesterday, like his briefing to newspaper editors-in-chief the day earlier, had only made things worse by further damaging public credibility and reinforcing  concerns that the health authorities are not on top of the SARS outbreak because of  a complete lack of  understanding of the critical importance of public confidence in any effective strategy to combat  a public health menace like the new killer virus, which had killed at least 103 people, infected 2,800 people in some 28 countries in four continents. 

For instance, the announcement by Chua on Monday that his Ministry would no longer give the cumulative number of suspected SARS cases had been met by public consternation that the three-day semi-transparency on the SARS outbreak after the Cabinet meeting last Wednesday was being further curbed, raising questions  in many minds as to what the Ministry is trying to hide. 

Furthermore, it has created confusion galore about the actual number of SARS cases in the country, which is not calculated to inspire public confidence in the capability, professionalism and transparency of the authorities in dealing with the SARS outbreak. 

This has forced some newspapers like  New Straits Time and Sin Chew Daily  to keep their own score of the cumulative number of suspected SARS cases, namely as of yesterday,  99 suspected cases, five families quarantined, 32 isolated in wards, two  probable cases and one death – as it  is a matter  of public interest as well as the public’s right to know the cumulative number of SARS cases every day. 

Or will Chua be issuing a directive to the newspapers to ban them from toting up their own cumulative number of SARS cases every day, just as the newspapers had earlier been warned not to give front-page prominence to the SARS outbreak or to highlight any SARS death so as not to scare off tourists? 

The more than doubling of suspected SARS cases in a matter of a week, i.e. from  44 cases on 31 March (when there was “zero case” on 30th March) to 99 cases  yesterday, must be a matter of grave concern, which has not been reflected in any of   the pronouncements by Chua,  who seems to be more interested in an “ego” trip, endlessly referring to the commendation at the way Malaysia handled the SARS outbreak by the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional representative some three weeks ago when he was very successful  in  keeping under wraps the actual  SARS situation in the country or claiming  that he had done better than Singapore in dealing with the SARS crisis. 

Chua should forget his “ego trip” and single-mindedly concentrate on the task at hand – to stop the SARS outbreak in Malaysia, which must be based on a combination of three factors, professionalism, public confidence and transparency.  The battle against the new killer virus cannot be won if there is no professionalism or public confidence, and the latter hinges on a policy of full transparency. 

DAP hereby makes five proposals for Chua Jui Meng to restore public confidence in the Health Ministry’s capability, professionalism and transparency in handling the deadly SARS outbreak, viz: 

  • Reinstate the daily report on the  cumulative number of SARS cases in the country, to banish any suspicion that the Ministry has things to hide.
  • End the Health Ministry’s  arbitrary definition of SARS cases and comply with the WHO case definitions of "suspected" and "probable" SARS cases and make public the two sets of figures daily.
  • Give a full log  of the incidence of SARS cases in the country, giving date, location, age and gender for each case in order to enable the public to better understand the SARS outbreak, and  explain why the public and the nation were not alerted and warned when the first few SARS suspected cases were reported to the authorities very much earlier last month.
  • As the briefing to MPs yesterday was a farce, raising more  questions than answering them  on the SARS outbreak, Chua should appear in Parliament for a two-hour session tomorrow (last day of the current Parliament)  to report on the latest SARS situation and to answer all the questions of MPs, with the whole proceeding telecast live on TV which will go a long way to create nation-wide alert and awareness of the deadly SARS outbreak.
  • End the government media blackout on information on the current dengue epidemic, and give  full, accurate and timely information about dengue cases and deaths. The Health Ministry  cannot secure public trust in dealing with the  SARS outbreak if it cannot be trusted with the handling of the ongoing  dengue epidemic with the total number of dengue cases and deaths still kept a top government secret.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman