Hong Kong government pandemic adviser David Hui recently suggested the mask mandate could be lifted after the winter. Microbiologist Ho Pak-leung went further, saying the remaining Covid-19 restrictions could go now. Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu also indicated the government aimed to remove all Covid-19 restrictions this year.
Together with the reopening of the border to the mainland, this all suggests the city is moving quickly towards normality after three years of strict Covid-19 restrictions and isolation from the world. No doubt this is great news for all those waiting to travel abroad and for tourists wanting to visit.
However, while the future looks bright, the Hong Kong government and the people should reflect on the hardships of the pandemic and prepare themselves for the next one. Though Hong Kong defended itself well during Covid-19, there are several issues left unaddressed, from shortfalls in the medical infrastructure to people’s mentality of how to protect themselves from a pandemic.
One of the biggest issues is the medical infrastructure. After the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002, there was a discussion about establishing more capacity for infectious disease control in Hong Kong. However, only one infectious disease centre was set up, at Princess Margaret Hospital.
When Covid-19 was first identified in Hong Kong, the lack of infectious disease treatment centres immediately became a problem. Patients rushed to hospitals but found no appropriate room for them.
In the first few weeks of the fifth wave, the image of old people laying outside hospital showed up the lack of suitable medical facilities in this advanced economy.
Worse was the loss of medical professionals. Medical infrastructure is about personnel, not just its physical structure. The turnover rates of public-sector doctors and nurses have risen in recent years. While some have left for jobs in the private sector, others have left the city altogether in the wake of the 2019 social unrest and the introduction of the national security law.
It is a challenge, in particular for public hospitals, to find replacements in the short term. It takes years to train new doctors and nurses, and the importation of overseas medical practitioners could result in conflicts with local practitioners.
There have been some discussions about these concerns, but mere talk is not enough. Government officials need to seize the opportunity to improve things so Hong Kong can do better next time.
Three years of strict Covid-19 restrictions also reveal that coping with a pandemic is never simply a medical issue. In the first few months of the outbreak, the Hong Kong government refused to close its border with mainland China. In response, some local restaurants and shops refused entry to mainland customers.
The government responded with a proposal to beef up the anti-discrimination law to protect mainland Chinese, but a law, even if enacted, does not solve the problem.
With the border reopen, mainland tourists are now reappearing in the city. If the government does not address the long-term problems of conflicts between mainland and Hong Kong residents and respond to complaints by locals, it is not hard to foresee the tensions will one day resurface and result in physical conflict.
The three years of pandemic restrictions also reveal the weakness of Hong Kong’s economy. As an export-oriented economy, the city relies heavily on its connections to the mainland and the world. Amid the pandemic, goods, services and people could not move as before and the city’s economy faced devastating damage.
Three years of isolation has transformed the local economy. Streets once filled with shops that mainly served tourists are now occupied by restaurants providing lunch and dinner to local citizens in their neighbourhood. A large number of workers in the aviation- and tourism-related industries have been forced to change career paths.
While tourists are returning to Hong Kong, the government should seize the opportunity to rethink the city’s heavy reliance on outside demand. While Hong Kong is famous for the rich variety of foreign brands, can it become more than a shoppers’ paradise?
Mainland tourists are back on the streets, and the city is gradually moving back to life as it was before the pandemic. At this time, there are many issues for the government to address.
While we mourn the loss of lives as a result of Covid-19, we must be aware that the pandemic has changed the city. The government should not just think about going back to the old days. It is time for officials to consider whether we are ready to face another crisis and also what kind of future they want for the city.