HONG KONG HAS BEEN caught in the fifth wave of COVID-19 since the start of the Lunar New Year, with daily infections surpassing the highest numbers seen since the outbreak started two years ago.
Many voices have questioned the feasibility of Hong Kong’s zero-covid policy, pointing to the fact that countries that previously had strict rules on Covid-19, such as Singapore, are now shifting their strategies to “Living with Covid”.
This theory assumes that the virus, in particular its Omicron variant, is more contagious but much less fatal than the previous variants. It would become endemic, like flu in most countries, where patients would just stay home for several days and recover.
Hong Kong is an international city, and many residents have family members, business contacts, or friends they would like to visit overseas. While these arguments may sound reasonable, should Hong Kong follow suit?
NOT TIME TO OPEN THE GATES
The answer is already there: No. The geometrical spike of cases in the past few days has confirmed some of the worries of medical experts: More deaths for the unjabbed (notably elderly and children) and a huge strain on medical resources in Hong Kong. Thousands of highly infectious COVID patients have already caused mini-outbreaks in some hospitals, and at the same time have affected other medical services. Chronically-ill patients, as well as those in critical condition or in need of operations, would be particularly hard-hit. The collapse or paralysis of the whole medical system could be more detrimental than the virus itself.
The next question is, should Hong Kong follow the Mainland model of pursuing a “dynamic zero-case” strategy at all costs, or the Western model where the gradual opening of borders and resumption of economic activities are allowed after reaching a sufficiently high vaccination rate? This is under heated debate in the past few weeks among both Hong Kong and Mainland media and netizens.
DO IT THE MAINLAND WAY?
Can we replicate the mainland way? No. In my opinion, Hong Kong needs to develop its own unique model. The city has been governed by the principle of “one country, two systems”. This principle is not just a slogan or a policy document. It recognizes that Hong Kong practices a different form of government from the Mainland, including its organization structure, organization capabilities, and way of administration. No matter which strategy Hong Kong adopts, it would still rely on its own efforts to achieve the siccess of the strategy.
Most of the chaos in relation to recent Covid-fighting measures are problems of lack of coordination and system overhaul due to sudden increase of patients and close contacts. They are unrelated to the adoption or choice of the Chinese or Western model.
While serious bottlenecks of testing capabilities, quarantine beds and quick testing kits could be alleviated by the support of the Central Government, day-to-day operations of the whole city-wide system, from the arrangements of compulsory testing, home quarantine, hotline inquiries and basic supplies to quarantine families, remain the sole responsibility of Hong Kong.
Unfortunately, we have repeatedly seen situations in disarray for even basic logistical operations such as check-in and check-out procedures of Penny’s Bay, supply of basic necessities to families under restriction-testing operations, and the risk of infection under the chaotic arrangements of compulsory testing, to name a few.
In addition to people infected by the virus, other victims of the outbreak include those who could not fly to Hong Kong due to the flight ban, as well as businesses and professionals choosing to leave the city due to long quarantine periods. Hong Kong is an international city that has always prided itself on its connections to the world. It is not feasible to keep the place in a state of separation from the rest of the world for a long time. It will put Hong Kong’s growth prospects and public finances at greater risk, as the city’s population shrank 1.2% last year, a record for the city.
While Hong Kong would not be able to precisely replicate the Mainland model of tackling the virus, a lot of its successful techniques are worthy of consideration. It adopts an “accurate epidemic fighting approach” based on robust district governance. Each district (some with more than a million people!) and its subsidiary “street offices” have very clear lines of command and division of labour regarding every aspect of epidemic control. It adopts the “grid-control” approach meaning every location and its residents belong to a specific grid where a small committee comprising neighbourhood helpers, medical staff and police officers, work together to trace every patient and their primary and secondary close contacts.
LOCAL TEAMS NEEDED
Hong Kong is extraordinary in having just one tier of government, despite having a population of more than seven million. District Councils and local committees mainly serve an advisory function, and government District Officers play a coordinating role in delivering services and policies from the SAR level.
Notwithstanding these limitations, I would suggest that a District Epidemic Control Committee be established in each of the eighteen districts. Home Affairs Department and District Officers should be empowered to coordinate rapid responses from different parties in fighting the pandemic. Mobilisation of local organisations, hotels, restaurants, clinics, NGOs as well as various government venues should be led by the Committee so that district-specific epidemic control measures can be formulated.
A 90% JAB RATE
In conclusion, the debate on Hong Kong following the Chinese or Western model is misplaced and even counter-productive. No matter what the model is, all policies must be both people-centred and workable under existing governance mechanisms. With vaccine passes being extended to schools, workplaces and other indoor premises, it is incumbent upon everyone to work towards the 90% jabs target.
A high vaccination rate is one of the effective measures to protect the lives of Hong Kong citizens in the short term, but also to prepare Hong Kong people to live in a normalized society when the epidemic is brought under control and there is an opportunity to reopen our borders. This is not only important for Hong Kong, but also for the whole country which has benefited from the financial and business opportunities created by our international connections.
Dr Henry Ho is Founder and Chairman of One Country Two Systems Youth Forum