We need to face challenge of COVID-19 pandemic squarely

Many Hong Kong people are frustrated by the repeated apparent blunders made by the special administrative region government in allowing the spread of COVID-19. Although the government has indeed learned to correct some of the earlier mistakes and had achieved months of zero local infections, the loophole that caused this round of local infections is sadly similar to those that we have seen before. We now know that it is because the SAR government has continued to allow some people to quarantine at home that led to the latest slew of infections that is now paralyzing many economic activities, causing great stress and unhappiness among many families whose livelihoods are now at risk. The SAR government needs to rise to the challenge squarely and stoically plug the leaks that continue to plunge Hong Kong into frustration and despair.

The flight attendant who was the source of this round of infections had flown in from the United States, which is known for its high infection rates, on Dec 27. On Jan 1, she tested positive for COVID-19 with the highly infectious omicron variant. Her mother and brother were taken to Penny’s Bay (Chok Ko Wan) to quarantine, and both tested positive the following day. Unfortunately, before the flight attendant tested positive, the mother had joined a morning dance function at Victoria Park, causing multiple infections. Nine people in the dance group joined a cruise with Spectrum of the Seas, potentially infecting many more. The helper of one of the dancers was also infected.

Another major outbreak related to a crew member of Cathay Pacific. The crew member was supposed to be in home quarantine, but he broke the rule and took his father out to dine at a restaurant in Festival Walk, eventually infecting at least seven people including his father. This crew member obviously had misbehaved and was disciplined by the company. But what if he did not misbehave, and had stayed home, while the father had gone out to eat by himself or with his friends? The end result may not have been that much different, and that is because home quarantine without isolation does not work.

I would suggest that the government pay a stipulated compensation if any serious problem arises within a month of the injection without any need to establish causation

The risks of home quarantine have been known for a long time, and it was only after multiple incidents that the SAR government eventually designated a number of hotels as quarantine hotels and isolated at-risk people during quarantine. Family members and others are not allowed to visit them. Why today do we still allow highly at-risk people, such as crew members, to quarantine at home? The cost to the community of this policy blunder is extremely heavy. It shows that the SAR government is taking chances. Why is the SAR government still taking chances? Is it because no one in the government needs to take responsibility when things go wrong?

If the loopholes remain open, the cost that the community has shouldered will be a futile sacrifice. Making still stricter social distancing rules will not prevent outbreaks. We know that there cannot be much social distancing on buses and trains. Closing down public libraries, public swimming pools, parks, beaches and gyms, and closing down such industries as massage, fitness clubs, cinemas, karaoke rooms and amusement game centers, and shutting down restaurants after 6 pm, will only aggravate the pain but will not really serve much purpose.

I agree that the government should push up the vaccination rate. But some people are truly worried about side effects and yet being told that “it is unrelated to the injection”. I would suggest that the government pay a stipulated compensation if any serious problem arises within a month of the injection without any need to establish causation. It would cost the government some money, but it would be worth it. The government could show people the incidence rate for those who take the vaccine versus those who do not in the event some undesirable things happen.

I would also suggest that the government set up vaccination exemption desks for those who worry about whether they are unfit for vaccination. Many people have complained that private doctors tend to equivocate over whether or not someone should take the vaccine. They are worried about having to take responsibility when they recommend a vaccination, in case it results in an unexpected outcome. With such a desk, the doctor who grants an exemption or recommends a vaccination will be acting on behalf of the government. He would make recommendations based on his professional judgment.

I also would reiterate my earlier suggestion of “reverse scanning” that more precise tracing is needed in the event of an outbreak. This will be particularly helpful to visually impaired people. One will only need to present a card with a personalized QR code at the facility being visited. Staff from the facility can scan the code, which will be relayed to the health authorities. Upon leaving, the QR code will be scanned again. So the entry and exit times will both be recorded. I would recommend adding this alternative to the present system through the LeaveHomeSafe app so people can choose to use the app if they want to.

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

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.