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Sunday, Jul 03, 2022

‘Dynamic living with Covid’ is the policy Hong Kong should pursue

‘Dynamic living with Covid’ is the policy Hong Kong should pursue

The soaring infection rate has made a return to zero cases impossible. Attempting it is costing the economy, yet to ‘let rip’ would endanger many more lives. The solution is a flexible Covid-19 policy that allows maximum freedom for the general population while protecting the vulnerable.

Whether it is possible to eradicate Covid-19 is, for now, a hypothetical question. While we should not dismiss the possibility in the years ahead, an international expert review of the feasibility and desirability of attempting Covid-19 eradication has yet to shape up.

Today, by hook or by crook, most of the world is accepting that Covid will become endemic. One by one countries are opening up, removing constraints on their economy, travel and social life, while accepting that Covid-19 infections continue.

They are emboldened by the relative mild health impacts of Omicron over previous Covid-19 variants. They are helped by high rates of vaccinations. The question for all in China is when to pivot our own pandemic strategies.

“Zero-Covid” served Hong Kong well when the world was getting to grips with the pandemic. We avoided the scary scenes of lockdowns in Wuhan, overwhelmed hospitals in northern Italy, and coffins stacking up in New York City.

Now, two years later, images of people left outside hospitals in cold weather, and reports of young children succumbing to the Covid-19 virus, have jolted Hong Kong from its “zero-Covid” comfort zone.

The quandary is clear. The intense focus from the media and the daily Covid-19 reports make everyone want to get back to zero quickly. At the same time, there is mounting resistance to the costs of the limitations this will require on our social and economic life.

The health impact of failed businesses and careers go unreported. Signs of despair are found in the number of people leaving Hong Kong. Do we continue to isolate ourselves, or do we get back to the business of regaining our “world city” status? Shall we continue to pursue zero-Covid at such cost, or do we join the rest of the world and accept that we need to find a way to live with the virus?

People walk past closed outlets in Causeway Bay on February 23. Strict social distancing measures have pushed many businesses to the brink of collapse.

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, was quoted by the Post at a forum last Tuesday held by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University. Any changes to China’s pandemic policies would put “people first and life first”, while also allowing China to better interact with the international community and safeguard its own economic development, he said.

For the country overall, the timing of such a pivot requires a good understanding of the public health implications, the capacity of the health care system, and the local context: the economy is churning with new social distancing constraints.

As China’s “world city”, it is time for Hong Kong to openly discuss how we pivot from a strategy that worked well previously, to a new strategy better suited for going forward. In its pursuit of zero infections, our government is implementing ever more draconian measures.

Travel bans have brought cross-boundary traffic to a halt for almost two years and with no end in sight. Schools already engaged in long-distance learning will be completely shut for early summer break. And the last reprieve from wearing masks – our mountains – is now denied.

The community is ever keener to avoid reporting Covid-19, forcing the government to undertake mass testing and possible lockdowns. The blatant truth for everyone to see is that even if we are able to get back to zero-Covid infections, we will not be able to stay there without killing our city.

The debate over zero-Covid versus living-with-Covid has been oversimplified. The choice for Hong Kong is whether to continue with a “dynamic zero infection” policy or to pivot to, what I call, a “dynamic living with Covid” policy.

The difference is not mere semantics. The community needs to see light at the end of the tunnel. They need a well-defined pathway to opening up our economy to both the mainland and the rest of the world. In return, people and businesses will be motivated to carry on despite difficulties, as they have done admirably for the last two years.

What I propose is an important pivot. Zero – even if achievable – will be proven to be unsustainable. If at all, eradication is unlikely for many years ahead. Equally wrong is a notion that we simply let Omicron rip. High death rates among children and the elderly are unacceptable outcomes for both the public and policymakers.

“Dynamic living with Covid” policies allow giving up on zero infection targets once we meet clearly advertised vaccination levels. Once met, there are good reasons to ride the Omicron outbreak rather than panic. Omicron will help boost overall immunity in the community. There is no guarantee the next variant is milder.


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