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Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

Hong Kong’s Covid-19 strategy is turning us old before our time

Hong Kong’s Covid-19 strategy is turning us old before our time

With one of the world’s lowest birth rates and high life expectancy, why is the retirement age in Hong Kong not also among the highest in the world? Meanwhile, the longer the lockdown of our lives continues, the more we will feel and look our age.

Letting others know your Chinese zodiac sign is a fairly accurate way of telling your age. In a tiger year, I can’t help but reveal that I am that king of beasts.

I was born in a water tiger year, which comes around every five cycles and is once more upon us. That is another way of saying I am now in my sixth decade and, by the reckoning of some people, considered elderly.

I do not consider myself “elderly”. For me, the word conjures up images of people using walking frames and wheelchairs, just as my mother did in her late 80s.

There seems to be a consensus, in the West at least, that 60 is the new 40. I would vouch for that with how I feel and what I have been told about my physical shape.

Medical advances, dietary knowledge, regular exercise and keeping an active mind mean that people in their 60s are living longer and healthier lives than earlier generations. Many could easily pass for being in their 40s or even 30s.

But age is just a state of mind. What we think of as old changes over time and will continue to do so as life expectancy increases.

Ageism is increasingly being frowned upon, yet some governments and companies continue to be prejudicial. They insist that, on reaching 60, a person’s working usefulness has ended and it is time to retire – in effect labelling such people as “elderly”.

Among places with such requirements for the majority of men are China, India, the two Koreas, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Egypt and Peru. It is a requirement for police and other disciplined services in Hong Kong to stop working at 60, although for other government workers it is 65.

The city allows some people to draw down their contributions to the public pension scheme at that age provided they retire, and a transport subsidy of HK$2 (US$0.25) a trip also becomes available.

A few governments have different standard retirement ages for men and women, although some are gradually lifting minimums and bringing the two into line.

Shortages of talent and skilled workers mean contracts and flexible working conditions are increasingly common in Hong Kong after an employee has reached a stipulated retirement age. Given that the city has one of the world’s lowest birth rates and a population listed at or near the top of global life expectancy – 88 for women and 83 for men – that is to be expected.

The mystery is why the retirement age is not also among the highest in the world and instead languishes somewhere in the middle. I have still not made up my mind what to do when my birthday comes around, although sharing characteristics associated with the tiger – such as good health and energy – my options are open.

Truth be told, few of us actually feel our age. There is no definition for what constitutes “elderly”. There is an unscientific rule of thumb; take your age, add 15 or 20 years and that is how “old” is perceived by many of us. But how a government treats its citizens sets the tone and in Hong Kong, where the median age is just under 45 and fast increasing, there is a need for a rethink.

The Covid strategy of the Hong Kong government is curtailing social, entertainment and exercise opportunities. No matter how creative we get with alternatives, there is no substitute for human interaction. The longer such restrictions remain in place, the more there will be an impact on society’s mental and physical health.

Studies show rising levels of stress, and I am certain that, like me, too many of us are adding extra kilograms from being required to work from home. The longer this lockdown of our lives continues, the more we will feel and look our age.

As I enter my fifth tiger cycle feeling energetic, full of enthusiasm and in good health, and anticipating a few more to come, I can only hope for a change of government attitude.

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