Ex-Hong Kong Health Chief: Wearing Mask About ‘Manners,’ Being ‘Polite’

Pedestrians wearing face masks cross a road during a Lunar New Year of the Rat public holiday in Hong Kong on January 27, 2020, as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP …
ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, Hong Kong’s former health minister said face masks are largely ineffective in preventing transmission of the Chinese coronavirus, adding that he only wears them in public to be “polite,” Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported on Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, Hong Kong had recorded 16 straight days without a new domestic coronavirus case. The city’s government announced it would begin easing restrictions on gathering in public places this Friday, now that the local virus outbreak has seemingly stabilized. Yeoh Eng-kiong, the city’s ex-health chief, cited the lack of new coronavirus cases as a reason not to wear sanitary masks when answering coronavirus-related questions at a briefing this week.

“Hong Kong does not have local cases at all, wearing face masks will not be very effective. Some citizens are worried about invisible [asymptomatic] patients – that’s very personal. The most important thing is to have manners. When you have a cold, cough, or [are] feeling unwell, you have to wear a mask,” Yeoh said.

“Of course [I] would wear [a mask] when in crowded areas, because citizens would be worried – not because I’m scared. Instead, [I’m] afraid that citizens would think it is not very polite,” he added.

Yeoh led Hong Kong’s fight against the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak as head of the city’s Health, Welfare, and Food Bureau at the time; the illness – caused by a coronavirus – killed 300 people locally. In 2004, Yeoh resigned from his position as Hong Kong’s health chief amid disapproval of his handling of the SARS outbreak, HKFP reports.

Yeoh was accused of failing to demonstrate “sufficient alertness” to initial reports of SARS and of “trying to downplay the severity of the outbreak.” He was also criticized for allegedly lacking the communication skills required of a policy secretary, reportedly giving “confusing and misleading” messages to the public at briefings.

Speaking to journalists on Monday, Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Department at Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection, warned the public that “hidden transmitters” of coronavirus could still be lurking in the community.

“Citizens should keep their face masks on and should not relax so soon,” she advised, according to HKFP.

In Hong Kong, most people have been covering their faces in public voluntarily during the coronavirus pandemic, Chuang added, meaning a mandatory mask requirement was not needed in the city.

“The percentage of those wearing masks in Hong Kong is quite high – like 97, 98 percent. It may not be necessary to ask for compulsory [adherence] by legal measures,” Chuang said, according to HKFP.

At Monday’s press conference, a reporter from HKFP asked Chuang if she was concerned about a potential surge in coronavirus infections in Hong Kong if China relaxed its border restrictions. Chinese government authorities have claimed to have coronavirus outbreaks under control in recent weeks, easing restrictions on people’s movement as a result. Most global health authorities doubt China’s official coronavirus statistics and its recent claims to have its outbreaks under control have been met with widespread skepticism.

Chuang said Hong Kong trusts the coronavirus data it receives from China.

“We have quite a close collaboration with mainland China health authorities … we have daily exchange of information and data from the mainland [China] … so we trust their data,” Chuang said.

On May 3, Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung let slip the government’s plan to distribute reusable masks to all citizens so that they may continue to keep coronavirus transmission low, HKFP reports.

“Maybe the government doesn’t want me to say it, but I did – really sorry about that … I’m very happy,” Yuen said during a TV broadcast on Sunday, indicating that he had revealed details of the reusable mask plan against the government’s wishes. The masks maintain antibacterial functions for up to 60 washes and uses, according to HKFP.

Local Hong Kong media cited sources who say that the reusable masks’ manufacturer will be Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel Limited, which is funded by Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Commission (ITC) and connected to a local university.

Replying to local media inquiries, ITC said preparation work for the reusable masks has entered the final stages and further information will be announced soon, HKFP reported on Tuesday.

Once they are ready, the commission plans to distribute the reusable masks through an online registration system, according to Hong Kong news site HKO1. Hong Kong citizens will be eligible to pick up the masks at a local post office or another pre-designated venue.

In March, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that progress had been made in the production of reusable masks. In February, the Hong Kong government set aside $103 million from an anti-epidemic fund to produce the masks, according to HKFP.

At press time on Wednesday, Hong Kong had recorded 1,041 cases of Chinese coronavirus and 4 deaths.

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