Education Ministry should declare emergency school holidays for primary schoolchildren in the high-risk age group in Sarawak until the Health Ministry has restored public confidence that the deadly virus which had claimed 21 lives is fully under control

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Monday): Education Ministry officials have followed the Health Ministry officials in showing that they are totally insensitive to the fears of Sarawakian parents arising from the deadly virus which had claimed 21 lives since the first outbreak about two months ago on April 14.

Despite calls by Sarawak DAP leaders and other Sarawak organisations, including the Sarawak Teachers Union, that emergency school holidays should be declared particularly for the primary schoolchildren in the high-risk age group, such as pupils in Standards 1, 2 and 3 in Sibu, Sarikei and Kuching, in view of the virus attack, the Ministry of Education insisted in re-opening school today.

As a result, when school re-opened in Sarawak today, very few Std. 1, 2 and 3 pupils turned up in school, especially in high-risk areas like Sibu, resulting in the schools concerned having to send home the very small number of pupils who turned up in school. Even attendance for Std. IV and classes upwards were affected.

I call on the Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to declare emergency school holidays for primary schoolchildren in the high-risk age group in Sarawak until the Health Ministry has restored public confidence that the deadly virus which had claimed 21 lives is fully under control

The insistence of the Education Ministry to re-open school in Sarawak is most shocking and justifies the long-standing gripe of Sarawakians that the Federal Government and Ministers from Peninsula Malaysia are not really serious or concerned about the problems and aspirations of the people of Sarawak.

Statements by Federal Ministers asking the parents in Sarawak not to "panic" and not to send their children out of Sarawak are not helpful at all, when the real issue is public confidence in the ability of the authorities to bring the viral crisis under control, which had been badly shaken when the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng had just admitted that the Health Ministry does not know what is the real nature of the viral attack or the cure and not very sure whether the viral infection is Coxsackie B as originally suspected.

What is the use of Jui Meng going to Sarawak to advise the people in Sibu and other affected areas "not to panic" on the ground that the presence of such virus in people were common - completely ignoring the fact that what has created panic is the number of deaths and not the presence of the virus among the people!

The question that is on the lips of the people of Sibu, Sarikei, Kuching and Miri in the past week is whether Jui Meng or the Sarawak Ministers and officials who ask the parents not to "panic" would feel very comfortable if one of their children had been one of the 21 victims of the viral attack?

What is most unfortunate is that after doing nothing for seven weeks, allowing the deadly virus to go on a rampage claiming 17 lives since the first death on April 14, the Health Ministry has not learnt the important lesson of restoring public confidence and had continued to bungle to further undermine a very shattered public confidence.

For instance, when the Health Minister visited Sibu on Saturday, he imposed a media clampdown banning all Sarawak state doctors and medical officers from speaking to reporters on the viral infection.

Although this was an urgent public concern in Sarawak, the Health Minister also banned all press conferences in the Sarawak State so as to "avoid public confusion when different doctors say different things on the disease". Jui Meng said reporters could now only contact the Sarawak Health Director, Datuk Dr Mohamad Taha Arif for news and that with immediate effect, he would be the only one giving daily press conferences in Kuala Lumpur.

This is most ludicrous. If the Health Minister wants to be the only person to monopolise the daily press conferences about the viral infection, then he should make himself available daily to the reporters in Sarawak by making Sibu the headquarters of his operations during the whole period of the viral crisis and not to run the operation by remote control from Kuala Lumpur. Otherwise, this would be telemedicine at its worst! Can Jui Meng explain why all the Sarawak papers today report the latest toll of 21 deaths from the viral attack while the Peninsula papers report 20 infant deaths?

The ban on Sarawak state doctors and medical officers from talking to newsmen about developments of the viral infection in various parts of Sarawak, whether Sibu, Sarikei, Kuching, and now Miri and even Limbang, should be lifted, for public interest in knowing about the latest developments of the viral attack outweigh all other considerations.

As a result of the media ban imposed by the Health Minister, all sorts of rumours have been flying around in Sarawak about the number of deaths and cases affected which are widely at variance from the official figures - which could only further undermine public confidence in the official handling of the viral attack.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong