There are no easy options for Hong Kong confronting this pernicious, mutating virus. As much of the rest of the world emerges into de facto Covid-19 acceptance, Hong Kong’s approach stands out. Elsewhere, there is an acceptance we will be living (and dying) with this virus indefinitely; hence, the pressing societal need to return to some normalcy after two years of hard slog and disruption.
Things may never get back to normal. This pandemic has long-term consequences for travel, trade and traditional behaviours. There is talk of producing goods and services more locally as disruptions to global supply chains in a “just in time” system have laid bare their weaknesses. More self-reliance and self-sufficiency is getting traction.
Covid-19 may yet force us to reflect on habits of excessive consumption and unfettered exploitation of finite natural resources. Perhaps some positive outcomes will flow from the pain and suffering in terms of more sensible choices for how we live and work.
Having seen other parts of the world hit by major successive Covid-19 waves since December 2020, Hong Kong has experienced mere ripples on a pond. Perhaps this sowed a sense of complacency that is coming home to roost.
Hindsight is all very well, expressed in terms of how we should have done this or that. But very few countries have come out of this unparalleled threat with an ideal response. One only has to look at infection and death rates by country or region to notice stark differences in two-year infection trajectories. We have been lucky till now.
The UK, a country many here still like to draw comparisons with, had an excellent vaccine roll-out. However, it also made serious mistakes that cost many lives. These errors – mostly delays to lockdowns, care-home policies, testing regimes, lax border controls and so on, places the UK seventh globally in terms of total deaths (currently more than 160,000) and top in Europe.
Germany, with a much larger population, has recorded 122,000 deaths. Its death rate per capita is 62 per cent of that in the UK – a stark difference for two rich countries.
To offer a local perspective, even as deaths mount rapidly, Hong Kong is still ranked at a lowly 141 out of 226 territories in Covid-19 mortality stakes, with 87 deaths per million people. Mainland China is the big stand-out, given its population of 1.4 billion, with deaths at three per million; it is a remarkable statistic given the virus likely originated in Wuhan. It speaks to the use of powerful state tools to enact robust containment policies, effective but difficult to implement elsewhere, including Hong Kong.
These wide-ranging pandemic experiences reveal delays, confusion, lack of timely action, poor use of data, politics and the malaise of complacency, while also demonstrating, in examples like New Zealand and China, the power of local action.
Our city must now consider carefully the robustness and effectiveness of its own policies. There are multiple dilemmas, pressures and vested interests to address with no easy answers.
Hong Kong’s strategy worked well before the arrival of the far more transmissible, if less deadly, Omicron variant. That genie is now out of the bottle and will be hard to tame. Perhaps a more dynamic reduction and (hopefully) elimination programme can be formulated to tackle the reality on the ground?
Two years of strict policies and partial lockdowns have impacted a dispirited citizenry. There have been serious financial losses for businesses forced to close. And in the end, such restrictions still got us to where we are today. Many are worn down mentally and lacking hope. This Omicron explosion, just as most of the world – and our competitors – move on, is devastating.
Mainland China has come to the rescue with much needed support to manage the crisis. But even with a helping hand across the bay, where do we go from here? Lockdown talk is rife and far from Hong Kong being a magnet for foreign talent, our expat professionals are leaving in droves.
International companies cannot conduct business effectively given stringent flight restrictions that do not make much sense now community transmission massively outnumbers imported cases. This is combined with some of the harshest global quarantine regulations.
As a scientist, I base most decision-making on verifiable evidence and critical thinking. But I am human and emotion plays a role. I suggest we must make allowances for the vaccine hesitancy among our elderly and instead incentivise them.
I’d abandon the proposed HK$10,000 free-for-all voucher scheme and turn it into a “social responsibility amplifier” by giving vouchers only to vaccinated citizens. We need simple and consistent messaging, fast and robust action, fairness, accountability and above all, freedom from the anti-vax conspiracy theory nonsense that has done such harm.
We need a balanced approach that does the least damage to lives, jobs, mental health, industry and reputation.
I hope our leaders will have the wisdom, foresight and science-guided sense to navigate a clear path out of this pandemic. One that leaves us perhaps battered and bruised, but ready, willing and still able to pick ourselves up, reclaim our place as “Asia’s world city” and retain our status as a global fintech and smart city hub that invests in its young people, protects the vulnerable and respects its institutions.