Heroes always emerge in times of crisis. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that has hit Taiwan is one of those times. Among Taiwan's frontline fighters against the disease, Lee Lung-teng (
"I am not scared by SARS, but the problem is that we are facing an unforeseen medical challenge," Lee told reporters. "Public panic spreads quicker than this disease. Hence, as the central government official in charge of the matter, my biggest challenge is not to fall down in front of the media and boost everybody's morale."
Lee, 51, is very traditionally minded. He holds the health department's daily SARS press conference in a calm and patient manner -- a refreshing contrast to the wild emotion of some local officials. When SARS first appeared on the scene, Lee could accurately brief the press on the government's policies and various counter-measures, but was somewhat overwhelmed when asked about detailed statistics.
Lee privately joked that he would be lying if he said he didn't feel the pressure as he was commanding operations like an old-style general fighting on the battlefield.
But this experience has suddenly turned him into a household name. He said it has given him an opportunity to observe human nature and has therefore been a valuable experience.
"A few days ago, I took a taxi by myself to inspect the latest developments in the evening," Lee said. "The driver recognized me just before I got out, and he waved his hand and said, `You are the deputy general-director! You have been so busy for us all, so I won't charge you for the ride!'
"There are many other public occasions in which passionate people yelled and told me `Go for it!'" Lee said. "These little incidents warm the cockles of my heart."
"Of course, the epidemic has also brought to light some other problems," Lee said. "For example, [Taipei Municipal] Hoping Hospital did not initially disclose its SARS cases, and some medical staff ran away or protested when the hospital was sealed off. This was not a professional attitude," Lee said.
"Some people's behavior also leaves room to be desired," Lee said. "For example, the health department's request to take hospital visitors' temperature was criticized by some hospital staff as a `white terror' move."
"Handling issues related to human emotions is indeed more tiring than implementing counter-disease measures," Lee said.
He said everything seemed very simple when he served as Taipei County Health Bureau chief where he could push for many medical and health policies. But now, many things have been "politicized," he said.
"I find it strange that the most-asked question in the daily press conference has been `how many people have died of SARS?'" Lee said. "If more media coverage could concentrate on the counter-SARS efforts and all the encouragement were getting, it would be more helpful," he said.
Lee used to work in National Taiwan University Teaching Hospital before being invited by then general director of the Taipei City Health Bureau Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲) to serve as his deputy in 1997. In October 1999, Taipei County Commissioner Su Chen-chang (蘇貞昌) invited Lee to take over the top health post in Taipei County.