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Monday, Jun 27, 2022

Amid panic buying and lockdown fear, Carrie Lam has again failed Xi’s remit

Amid panic buying and lockdown fear, Carrie Lam has again failed Xi’s remit

After intense weeks of food shortages, overwhelmed hospitals and home isolation chaos, to suggest a policy U-turn on lockdown is sure to cause panic. This gaslighting only erodes public confidence.

We haven’t come very far since the beginning of Covid-19. Last week’s empty supermarket shelves looked like we had gone back to February 2020, when panic buying and stockpiling toilet paper got us on international headlines. Back then, it even got a Singaporean minister to call Hongkongers “idiots”.

Most of the world, even Singapore, has got the “idiot” bug since, so much so that studies have been conducted on toilet paper hoarding. And now that Hong Kong is riding our fifth and worst wave yet, all those experts explaining away the universal run on the rolls may help our government officials understand why and where they have failed.

Toilet paper is a basic primal need and, according to psychologist Mary Alvord, there is comfort in knowing we have it. In times of uncertainty, panic buying and stockpiling makes us feel we have some control.

Call it “dynamic fight or flight”: we can’t fight the virus and we can’t run from it, so we hoard as much as we can as a direct and visceral response to our acute anxiety. And in recent weeks in Hong Kong, the government has been the main driver in the spikes in our anxiety and cortisol levels.

Most of us aren’t convinced by the government slogan, “Together, we fight the virus”. This fifth wave laid bare how little “togetherness” there is. The people toughed it out through stringent measures and made sacrifices, only for the government to bury its head in the sand.

It took a message from President Xi Jinping to get the Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor administration to stop messing around and take on its most basic and fundamental duties: the protection of people and the security of their communities.

Even so, health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee sparked widespread panic last week when she said on a radio programme that the government would not rule out the possibility of a lockdown. In what appeared to be yet another Covid-19 policy U-turn of a government scrambling to get a handle on the situation, Chan raised the possibility of a lockdown just like that, without elaboration.

Our panic fuse is easy to light – more reason for Chan to be mindful of her words. Lam had to come out to repeat her stand against a “wholesale city lockdown”.

In a city suffering from food supply disruptions – from fresh pork shortages as Covid-hit abattoirs closed, to high vegetable prices as cross-border truck drivers come down with Covid-19 – to suggest a lockdown without explanation or revealing some sort of timeline is sure to cause panic.

Even if vegetables were not on Chan’s radar, surely the health secretary had a front-row seat as overwhelmed public hospitals left patients out in the cold in makeshift tents? Did she not hear about all those in home isolation who had recovered from Covid-19 by the time beleaguered health authorities managed to contact them?

Even before she suggested the lockdown policy U-turn, people were panic buying over-the-counter medication, fully expecting to be fighting the virus on their own. People were not acting irrationally.

After President Xi put the government on notice, the chief executive admitted that the fifth wave had “greatly exceeded the Hong Kong government’s ability to respond”. Xi tasked the government to “take all necessary measures and protect Hong Kong people’s lives and health, as well as ensure Hong Kong’s social stability”. Sparking public panic is the opposite of that.

The government has failed at crisis communication. It must stop trying to give out assurances of certainty and then backtracking on them, making a habit of gaslighting the people and eroding the very little public confidence it has.

There is no certainty and it would be idiotic to pretend otherwise. Swear off living with the virus all you want, but the virus is living with us. In addition to calling for calm, just admit that it has underestimated Omicron, apologise and make clear that policies will need to continue to change quickly to respond to the outbreak.

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