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Wednesday, Jun 29, 2022

Amid lockdowns and economic woes, how can Hong Kong best help China?

Amid lockdowns and economic woes, how can Hong Kong best help China?

Hong Kong has avoided the kind of lockdowns that have disrupted lives across the mainland and dealt a heavy blow to the economy. Given the mainland’s struggles, Hong Kong’s role as an intermediary between China and the West could be one of the best assets for the country.
If things go according to plan, Shanghai’s stringent lockdowns will begin to ease on June 1 after more than two months. Remember when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that Hong Kong would not undergo “wholesale city lockdown” at the beginning of March? Most of us did not know what that meant before we saw Shanghai shut down.

There have been reports of people screaming from their homes, food shortages, infected young children separated from their parents, patients in desperate need of medical attention going unattended, pets of the infected being killed, and fenced-in residents taking down the barriers.

And, of course, how could we forget the nursing home patient who was mistakenly declared dead? The footage of workers pulling a body bag out of a mortuary van only to realise the person inside was still alive went viral and sparked outrage – as it should have.

We are fortunate that, while our health minister once casually floated the idea of a lockdown for the city on the radio, Lam ruled it out. Having been battered by previous waves of Covid-19, and given the city’s cramped living spaces, our response to a “wholesale lockdown” may well have been unimaginable.

In a study, Polytechnic University researchers found that 12.4 per cent of respondents exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder due to the pandemic.

That survey was conducted between December 2020 and February 2021 during the city’s fourth wave, and researchers warned that the situation could be much worse after the fifth wave. The mental health crisis facing the city should be a lesson for our compatriots and policymakers across the border.

Covid-19 has claimed far too many lives across the world. The toll of controlling the spread of the virus is massive – the stricter the measures, the more taxing it is for those who have to live with the restrictions and uncertainties. Even so, little can be done to contain the growing frustration of residents and communities, while the outrage sparked by their difficulties is contagious, too.

Shanghai is not the only mainland city suffering Covid-19 infections and imposing lockdowns and restrictions. Beijing has been dealing with its own pandemic challenges. University students there have been at the forefront of expressing frustrations, and demanding that authorities address the roots of their discontent.

They weren’t staging protests over lofty idealism. Like the students at Beijing Normal University, they simply wanted to know the arrangements for normal student affairs, like how and when their final exams would take place and whether they could go home after they had finished them.

There was a protest at Peking University earlier this month over a wall of sheet metal that segregated students from faculty and staff. The latter were to be allowed to move about freely while students were not.

When we consider the impact that Covid-19-related measures have had on China’s economy, we have reason to be concerned. Shanghai’s industrial output shrank 61.5 per cent in April compared to a year earlier, for example. As the nation’s commercial powerhouse, this is a huge hit. The people are paying a price through lost jobs and businesses, which directly affects consumption and livelihoods.

Premier Li Keqiang has said the country’s economy is stalling and recently conceded for the first time that it might fall short of the government’s 5.5 per cent growth target. He has called on officials from across the country to stabilise the economy with whatever resources they have.

These are all reasons for us to be concerned. How much are we willing to sacrifice for borders with the mainland to reopen? Adopting the same strict measures seems even more out of the question now.

Hong Kong must now consider whether there is a post-Covid-19 intermediary role to be played between the mainland and the rest of the world. It is a role that, at one point, had become obsolete, but that could now prove to be one of the best resources for the country.
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