The official denial of a SARS death in Penang four days after widespread rumours is proof of the urgent need for a more "smart" and decentralized information policy on SARS

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Tuesday): Yesterday, Health deputy director-general Datuk Ismail Merican castigated administrators of certain designated hospitals for delaying reports of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) notification cases, stressing the importance of giving information as soon as possible to the ministry so that action can be taken immediately to contain the situation.

The Health Ministry should at the same time be fully aware of the importance of having a "smart" information policy of addressing in a swift, timely and authoritative manner the concerns of the public about the SARS outbreak.

For instance, at the daily SARS update briefing yesterday , Ismail denied rumours of a case of SARS death in Penang. He said he had just received a report from the Penang health authorities and he could not understand how there could be such rumours.

Ismail's denial is most welcome, except that there should have been in place a "smart" information policy on the SARS outbreak which could have publicly scotched such a rumour four days ago instead of allowing it to make its daily rounds in Penang, gaining seeming credibility from no timely and credible denial and causing grave concern and some panic as a result.

Ismail, based in Kuala Lumpur, may not know of such a rumour in Penang, but if there is a "smart" and decentralized information policy where there are authorized officials in every state who could respond and give timely information to public concerns and questions about the SARS outbreak, such a rumour would have been raised and scotched not yesterday but four days ago!

Penang Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon should seek an urgent meeting with the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to ensure greater transparency and more timely information by decentrasing the whole SARS information process, and to allow the Penang State Government to give a daily update of the SARS situation in the state, the suspected and probable SARS cases in Penang as well as to address promptly various SARS rumours that might surface to assure the people and investors that the new killer virus is fully under control.

Something will be very wrong about the Malaysian system of government if the Penang State Government cannot be trusted by the Federal Government to give responsible, accurate but timely information about the SARS outbreak.

A "smart" SARS information policy in Penang must be urgently put in place, as there are no signs that SARS, dubbed the "21st century disease", is being brought under control, with the global death toll reaching 145 casualties, comprising 64 in China, 48 in Hong Kong, 13 in Canada, 12 in Singapore, 5 in Vietnam, two in Thailand and one in Malaysia.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a statement a month after issuing its first global alert that SARS could become a global epidemic - with its great potential for rapid spread in a highly mobile, interconnected world.

The economic growth of Penang, Malaysia and Asia would be badly hurt in the second quarter by SARS, estimated to have caused about US$30 billion in global losses, which could rapidly mount in a globalised economy and most serious of all, causing a regional and global recession.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman