Stricter measures needed for new outbreak

The inevitable has finally happened: The fifth wave of the COVID-19 outbreak has descended upon Hong Kong.

At the time of writing, over 265 cases of the omicron variant have been reported. Two clusters are fast-growing in the city, including the infamous Moon Palace cluster that has produced nine confirmed cases.

And once more, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government remained reactive in its response. Since Jan 7, dine-in services have been prohibited after 6 pm, all “cruises to nowhere” have been canceled, and premises such as gyms and cinemas have been closed initially for two weeks.

Restrictions will be reviewed on Jan 20, but many remain pessimistic and expect restrictions to continue well into the Lunar New Year. These restrictions have caused an uproar among the public, and some would even say the city’s sluggish response is once more a case of “too little, too late”.

However, vaccinations have been gaining traction across the city and overseas.

Earlier this month, the MTR Corporation announced a vaccine mandate for all on-site staff members. Barring those who are medically exempt, all staff members who work at any MTR premises must receive one vaccination by Feb 23, and the second dose by the end of April. At the end of last year, the government announced that civil servants would also be bound by a vaccine mandate from mid-February.

It is also paramount to reopen the Hong Kong-mainland boundary for the sake of our economy and our tourism industry, and to allow families to be reunited with their loved ones on the mainland

Citigroup in the US has imposed one of the strictest vaccine rules in the business sector with its “no jab, no job” policy, which stipulates all staff members be vaccinated by Jan 14. Unvaccinated staff will be placed on unpaid leave and fired at the end of the month unless they are granted an exemption.

Late-night venues such as nightclubs and karaoke bars already require patrons to present their vaccination records. And naturally, restaurants and recreation venues such as cinemas, gyms and libraries are following suit.

In the wake of the sweeping restrictions and vaccine mandates, the only swift action taken by the SAR government has been to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Cathay Pacific. The company may very well be facing legal action by the government after the omicron outbreak was traced to two crew members who breached quarantine rules.

However, critics have pointed out that the government’s lack of follow-up actions and preparedness together with its flimsy quarantine enforcements have allowed the virus to slip through the cracks. The logistics of quarantining pilots and aircrew have been sorely overlooked. For one thing, a loophole allowing passengers to bypass quarantine — by way of empty passenger flights being classed as cargo flights — was used by some Cathay crew up until last month.

A birthday party that around 200 people, including 14 senior government officials and 20 Legislative Council members, attended was struck by the virus. So far, only two attendees have been confirmed to have tested positive for the virus.

Although the large gathering did not breach any rules, the event has certainly left a bad taste in people’s mouths as the SAR government continues to preach its zero-COVID-19 policy to the public.

Looking ahead, it is abundantly clear that the way forward for Hong Kong is to push stricter compulsory measures and vaccine mandates, especially on certain sectors that are continuing to feel the strain.

This means vaccine mandates requiring civil servants, catering staff, teachers, healthcare workers and care-home workers to show vaccine records for two vaccine doses before they are allowed to turn up for work. Vaccine mandates must also be required for those entering public spaces that are hot spots for transmission, such as public transport facilities and eateries.

Hong Kong is trailing behind in getting its citizens fully vaccinated. As it stands, just under 70 percent of Hong Kong residents have received both vaccinations; only half a million people — less than 8 percent of the population — have received their booster jab. Compared to other developed economies such as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong has been lagging in its vaccination drives.

The Chinese mainland has fully vaccinated over 83 percent of its more than 1.4 billion population.

Some medical experts have posited that fully vaccinating 90 percent of the population is required if the world is to return to business as usual. At present, just over half of the world population has received full vaccinations. And given the rate at which Hong Kong is vaccinating its residents, it’s unlikely that we can achieve this figure in the time needed. Even if we did manage to fully vaccinate 7.5 million Hong Kong residents, we need to remember that vaccination doesn’t offer total protection.

And as I have often observed in my columns, the mainland’s stringent zero-COVID-19 policy — which continues to be strictly and successfully enforced — should be adopted here in its entirety. This means strict and consistent consequences for those who break the rules.

It is also paramount to reopen the Hong Kong-mainland boundary for the sake of our economy and our tourism industry, and to allow families to be reunited with their loved ones on the mainland. However, our efforts seem more geared toward opening our borders to the international community, as opposed to cultivating our long-standing, historical ties with the motherland. This is wrong politically, economically, and in human nature.

Ongoing universal testing is also of vital importance and has been consistently shown to curb the growth of case clusters.

Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province in central China, carried out nucleic acid testing for 12.6 million residents in a 6-hour period earlier this week, or roughly 583 people being tested per second.

This was in response to the 60 new cases across Henan province last Sunday; universal testing was promptly arranged the following Monday.

The weeks to come will be another test for Hong Kong, as our medical system is once more on the verge of collapse and our service industry continues to suffer.

Once more, we require personal vigilance from the people by avoiding crowded places, keeping social distancing, wearing facial masks and frequently sterilizing hands. This is our first line of defense against the virus by keeping it away from entering our bodies. The vaccination is the second line of defense by fighting the virus after it has entered our bodies. More stringent and swifter action from our government is required including universal testing, if we hope to ride out this current wave sooner rather than later.

The author is president of think tank, Wisdom Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.