Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam at a news conference in Hong Kong on January 7 2020. Picture: REUTERS/NAVESH CHITRAKAR
Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam at a news conference in Hong Kong on January 7 2020. Picture: REUTERS/NAVESH CHITRAKAR

Hong Kong — Fears of a public health outbreak stemming from a surge of mysterious pneumonia cases in mainland China are giving Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam a chance to shift public attention away from the protests that have beguiled her government for the past seven months.

“We won’t be negligent. We have already taken appropriate, comprehensive and relatively strict response measures as soon as possible,” Lam said Tuesday, spending nearly half of a 33-minute press briefing on the issue ahead of her first Executive Council meeting of the new year.

Lam devoted her opening comments to addressing the government’s response measures to the pneumonia outbreak. She didn’t use the remarks to address a mass march that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets on January 1.

She said it was her duty as CEO to set the city on the “right track” and restore order, but focused on what her government was doing to stay ahead of a potentially devastating public health crisis. Lam also warned residents to be cautious of false information spreading on social media about the disease.

“I urge the public not to believe in rumours and not to share social media posts that contain the rumours so as not to misinform more people,” she said. “It has been worrying to see the large amount of fake information spread on the Internet, and it’s unfavourable to the city’s efforts to fight fake news about the epidemic.”

When pressed by journalists, Lam stuck to her stance on refusing an independent inquiry into the behaviour of her police force during the course of the pro-democracy movement, and called the protests “heart wrenching”.

High alert

Public hospitals in Hong Kong have reported at least 21 cases of people who presented with fever, respiratory infection or pneumonia symptoms and had visited the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the lung infection originated, according to its hospital authority. Authorities have found no discernible link between these cases and the pneumonia cluster in Wuhan.

Hong Kongers — and their government — have been on high alert regarding communicable diseases since the 2003 outbreak of SARS, the severe acute respiratory disease that originated in China’s Guangdong province in 2002 and ripped through the financial hub the following year. The virus affected nearly 2,000 people and killed nearly 300 in Hong Kong, crippling the city’s tourism and real estate industries and dealing a major blow to the economy.

Hong Kong outlined a plan to deal with the Wuhan pneumonia outbreak last week, raising classification of the response level as “serious” — the second-highest scale of action in its three-tier system.

The city has already been plagued by a steep drop in tourists from mainland China and other parts of the world, stemming from clashes between demonstrators and police that often turned violent.

Visitors to Hong Kong fell 36% in the second half of 2019 from the year before, tourism board chair Pang Yiu-Kai told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday.

Bloomberg