City’s strategy needs to be more measured to fight the pandemic

The latest round of strict measures to combat COVID-19 is hurting the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. Apart from the direct hit that many businesses are taking, due to the closure of restaurants after 6 pm, shutdowns imposed on cinemas, fitness clubs, nightclubs and bars, massage and beauty parlors, etc., taxi drivers suffer a horrific plunge in business especially after 6 pm; the retail sector, the transportation sector, the performing arts sector and especially the tourism sector are all struggling to survive. There is little doubt that the first quarter of 2022 will register negative growth. For all of 2022 we expect to see anemic growth probably at 2 to 3 percent at the best. Even though our exports appear to be doing great, our links to the outside world have been curbed severely due to flight bans. For an international city like Hong Kong, this is catastrophic. 

Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee says her policy offers a formula that is bitter first and sweet later. But to many Hong Kong people, the bitter part may be potent enough to threaten survival. Professor Gabriel Leung, dean of the HKU Medical School, suggested a more measured strategy for restaurants, which he said could be allowed to open till 8 pm or 8:30 pm, provided that the industry and citizens all comply with the anti-pandemic measures. He is particularly concerned about the exchange of air within the restaurant premises. Given that the omicron virus is airborne rather than transmitted through droplets, he proposed that the plastic plates separating restaurant patrons could be removed to facilitate air flow.

Actually, taking a measured approach is certainly not new to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government. The HKSAR government has offered exemptions or exceptions for quarantine to various people, and particularly those involved in cargo transportation. Unfortunately, some of these exemptions or exceptions have turned out to be a huge mistake. The exemptions that were given were justified because of the need “to maintain necessary operation of Hong Kong’s society and economy and to ensure an uninterrupted supply of all daily necessities to the public”. These exemptions were reviewed from time to time. 

Crew members who will enter Hong Kong’s local community must be subject to even stricter quarantine rules. Unfortunately, the latest round of infections can be mostly traced to the home quarantine of two crew members of Cathay Pacific

One recent change is that “With effect from November 12, the Government will cancel the exemption arrangements for most of the exemption categories of persons upon arrival in Hong Kong. Only categories that are necessary to maintain the continuing functioning of the community and supply of necessities will be retained (i.e., cross-boundary goods vehicle/coach drivers, crew members of aircraft, sea crew of cargo vessels loading/unloading in Hong Kong, government officials, etc.)”. The government emphasizes that “All exempted persons must comply with certain sets of stringent epidemic prevention measures and conditions to mitigate the risk of transmission and coming into contact with the public, including requirements on repeated regular testing and strict restriction on the location of self-isolation or movement so as to adhere to the principle of closed-loop management.” 

A “measured approach” must not be reckless. I am glad to see that it is now official that “in general, air crew who are not going to enter Hong Kong’s local community after arrival will be required to undergo self-isolation at an airport hotel room until next duty flight.” If this is the case, then crew members who will enter Hong Kong’s local community must be subject to even stricter quarantine rules. Unfortunately, the latest round of infections can be mostly traced to the home quarantine of two crew members of Cathay Pacific. This is a disastrous exception to the hotel quarantine in isolation requirement. The outbreak would have taken place even if the crew members had not broken any rule and had obediently stayed home, since infected family members could still go out into the community. 

If a measured approach can be justified under some circumstances that directly affect people’s livelihoods such as when cargo shipments for necessities are involved, the puzzle is, why is a measured approach not followed today when (1) we have a fairly high vaccination rate in the community, with over 76 percent having completed their first dose and 70 percent having completed the second dose; (2) all the businesses have been compliant with precautionary measures proposed by the government and the spokespersons for some industries stressed that no case had ever happened on their premises; (3) many of the businesses had been starved of income and weakened for so long that their survival is at stake? If they fall, they may not be able to recover. A measured approach may involve some stricter measures that will complement those measures that are relaxed.

A measured approach may also be taken to allow domestic helpers from the Philippines and other countries to come to Hong Kong. Presently many Hong Kong families who need a helper have been waiting for months and some for nearly a year. Some families need domestic helpers to tend to disabled persons; others so that a family member can go out to work. Hong Kong presently has a shrinking labor force, and a shortage of manpower will further strangle economic growth on the supply side. If we work out some complementary measures to ward off risks, a measured approach need not pose much higher risks. On the other hand, an extraordinarily strict approach undermines Hong Kong people’s well-being right away.

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai HK Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.