Bowing to pressure over a slow response to SARS, Hong Kong’s health secretary resigned yesterday and took the blame for the crisis that killed hundreds of people and caused months of uncertainty and fear.
Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong became a rare political casualty in a territory where critics charge that top aides of Hong Kong’s leader, Tung Chee-hwa, often avoid being held accountable for problems.
Yeoh’s departure might give Tung a boost at a time when Hong Kong residents are furious over a recent decision by Beijing ruling out full democracy for the territory in the next few years. The anger spilled into the streets last week as several hundred thousand people staged a pro-democracy march.
Yeoh suffered a setback Monday when a legislative report blamed him for many failures in the fight against severe acute respiratory syndrome. Dozens of relatives of SARS victims gathered outside the legislature yesterday to call for Yeoh’s removal.
At a news conference after his resignation was announced, Yeoh said that he had “dedicated all my energies for one single purpose - to stop this deadly disease that had created so much suffering,” but that it became politically impossible to stay after the legislative investigation found his performance inadequate.
Tung, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said he accepted the resignation, but he also praised Yeoh for fixing shortcomings in the health system that were revealed during the SARS crisis.
SARS infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong and killed 299 of them as health workers and hospital administrators scrambled to understand and contain the disease that didn’t have a name when it spread here in February last year from mainland China.
After SARS exploded into a crisis a few weeks later, Hong Kong residents stayed home or wore surgical masks when they went out. The territory was declared free of SARS in June last year.
Tung said Yeoh had talked to him about quitting in “the spirit of accountability and to try to relieve the resentment felt by the victims.” But Tung initially told Yeoh there was more work to do and kept him on.
Monday’s 434-page report from the Legislative Council Select Committee did not call for Yeoh’s removal, but Hong Kong’s top three political parties lined up yesterday and said he should quit.
Yeoh’s resignation letter to Tung, dated Tuesday, said he was leaving to “to demonstrate my political accountability and to bring a closure to this painful episode.”
Tung said Yeoh would remain on the job until a successor is chosen.
Revision date: June 20, 2011
Last revised: by Amalia K. Gagarina, M.S., R.D.