In 2003 a crisis hit Hong Kong. It was no ordinary problem because at this time Hong Kong was no longer under the authority of the British government but now under the authority of the Chinese.
There is therefore pressure for both the national government and the local government in Hong Kong to prove to the world that they can effectively deal with this crisis. Now, they have their hands full because the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS is a disease that has no effective cure and at the same time it is a medical problem that very little is known about.
The purpose of this study is to take a closer look at how an organisation handled a crisis of a global proportion while at the same time hampered by the problem of a hostile press and the perils associated with a transition government. This is because Hong Kong was known all over the world as a product of British rule. At the same time many are aware of the history of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. The mindset that prevails in this discussion is the mindset of a Westerner eager to know how the Chine government is able to maintain or even upgrade the reputation of Hong Kong as a world-class business hub.
The cornerstone of the study is the article written by Jennifer Eagleton wherein she described not only the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003 but also the way the media dealt with the crisis and how it behaved antagonistically against the government. She built her argument using information taken primarily from the South China Morning Post. The proponent of this study will take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of her argument using textual evidence as how she came about with her assertions.
Eagleton’s claims will be analysed using information taken from outside sources to see if there is indeed factual basis to what she said. In this regard the proponent of this study analyse data taken from three scientific journals. The first one is from an article written by Ron Fouchier et al., revealing pertinent information concerning SARS.
The second is from Ignatius Yu et al., who said that there is proof of airborne transmission of the SARS virus and this is a crucial piece of information regarding this medical problem. Finally, the third source of information comes from Steven Gordon and David Longworth who explained how difficult it is to control the spread of the said virus.
The strength of the argument is seen in the simple fact that SARS did not become a killer virus as the SCMP tried to hype it. It can be considered as an epidemic because of the number of people that were killed. It can be described as a deadly virus because of the way it can infect and then render a person weak and then eventually will die from the effect of the disease; however, it did not spread like the epidemic of ancient times that killed millions of people.
This was supported by researchers who said that there were 299 deaths in a population of 6.7 million people (Yu et al., 2004). This is of course an alarming figure. But this is only acceptable if it is viewed with the idea of compartmentalizing Hong Kong and China.
In reality Hong Kong and China are one and therefore there are a billion people but only a relatively small number of deaths. In addition as of May 2003 there were only 435 deaths linked to the SARS virus (Fouchier, 2003). In other words the author was correct when he pointed out the way it was deliberately blown out of proportion.
The author was also able to explain why the media find it easy to blow it out of proportion. On the other hand it must also be clarified that there is a possibility that the overall impact was inadvertent. Granted that the SCMP was prone to sensationalism but it did not intend to hurt Hong Kong. It was just the chain-reaction of events that forced people to see Hong Kong during that three-month long crisis in a negative light. Once the fuse was lit there was no turning back and when it exploded no one was able to repair the damage.
The strength of the argument can also be seen in how the author was able to pinpoint the relevant circumstances that fired up the intense backlash against Hong Kong. First of all the SARS outbreak occurred during the time when Hong Kong was yet to prove that it can function in the same level of efficiency and brilliance when it was yet under the British government. Now that Hong Kong was back under the umbrella of the Chinese government there was intense pressure with the local leadership in Hong Kong to prove that they were up to the task.
This is the reason why they have to downplay the effect of the SARS and the reports that says the government was unable to effectively deal with the situation. There was so much at stake not to mention that their reputation and the success of the famous port city hung in the balance. This is why local officials wanted to resolve the problem as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
They tried everything that they could but it is almost impossible to give ones best under a pressure-packed situation. This is not only related to the deaths and potential for the virus to spread to large portions of the population but also by embarrassment of the connotation that the term SARS came to mean to Hong Kong residents, the Chinese government, the Chinese people and all those who are knowledgeable about what was going on in the region.
This has something to do with how the World Health Organization came to label the virus. It was not meant to embarrass the Hong Kong administrators or even the Chinese government but interestingly the WHO chose to name the virus as SARS. It is a name that is hard to miss because Hong Kong, after it was turned over to China was labelled as a special administrative region or SAR.
As a result the government tried to erect the facade of calm and effective management and administration of their jurisdiction but this strategy backfired when hundreds of people became sick. There were many who bitterly complained that if they were not led to believe that everything was under control then they would not have gone to the hospital.
This is because SARS was thought to be an airborne contagion. The decision to contain the damage was viewed as a means to cover up their incompetence and so many were livid when they felt that they were kept in the dark regarding the SARS outbreak.
The pressure is not only borne of the fact that the Hong Kong government tried its best to show the world that it is capable of steering Hong Kong into the New Millennium under new management but also by the fact that no one knew exactly what they were dealing with. In other words Hong Kong officials cannot talk about something that they are ignorant about. But this ignorance was equated to incompetence when it was supposed to be understood from a different angle.
All concerned should have understood SARS as mutated virus and therefore it could not be understood and could not be defeated using conventional means. If it is true that SARS is a deadlier version of the common colds then that is another level of problem that has to be dealt with because there is no cure for common colds. Nevertheless, the government should have handled it with the transparency demanded by the people.
The weakness of the argument is that the author was unable to establish if things can be done differently. It does not matter if what the author was saying is true or not, the most important thing is to demonstrate that the Hong Kong media could have done a better job but refused to do so.
A through reading of the article will give the impression that the Hong Kong media reacted in the only way they know how and that is to report newsworthy topics and let it go through the process to solicit the greatest impact. This means that they were not doing merely to appear sensational but they were forced to do it in order for the government and concerned individuals to listen to what they have to say.
Their paranoia is justified if one will consider what scientists were claiming regarding SARS. One report says that SARS is a health worker’s worst nightmare (Gordon and Longworth, 2003).
This is because SARS has “non-specific signs and symptoms, no early diagnostic test, no specific treatment, and no vaccine forthcoming in the foreseeable future because the rate of mutation makes the SARS coronavirus a moving target” (Gordon & Longworth, 2003, p.889). If this is the case then the press, especially SCMP has a valid reason why they acted that way.
This study is important because it shows how a government handled pressure coming from its own citizens and the media. The study revealed that the Hong Kong government tried to downplay the impact of SARS because it tried to demonstrate to the world that everything is under control.
This is a good case study when it comes to understanding the extent of how an organisation or in this case a government will do to improve its image especially if a particular issue has the potential to negatively affect its reputation in the long run.
At the same time this study is helpful in understanding how new media and the press are sometimes constrained to use hyperbolae and hype not for the sake of creating controversies but to force an immovable object to move. In this case there is ample evidence to show that the Chinese government in conjunction with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region tried to downplay the effect of a deadly virus.
The SCMP may have erred in trying to create hype when it comes to the reporting of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong. It was not entirely its fault because the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Chinese government tried to downplay the impact of the SARS virus.
In the end Hong Kong officials were justified with their decision to do everything not to cause panic and not to affect businesses operating within Hong Kong but at the same time the press had no recourse but to use everything that they have to force the government into action.
This study shows that the government must try to be transparent especially when it comes to cases dealing with a deadly virus as difficult to control as SARS.
Eagleton, Jennifer. (2004). SARS: It’s as Bad as we Feared but Dared not Say: Naming,
Managing and Dramatizing the SARS crisis in Hong Kong. English Today 77 Cambridge University Press 20(1): 34-45.
Fouchier, R. (2003). Aetiology: Koch’s Postulates Fulfilled for SARS virus. Nature 240: 423-440.
Gordon, S. & D. Longworth. (2003). SARS: Here to Stay? Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 70(10): 889-895.
Yu, I. (2004) Evidence of Airborne Transmission of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Virus. The New England Journal of Medicine. 350: 1731-1739.