Going Viral

For the last two months the message from the government’s daily press briefings on the virus outbreak has been that “the next two weeks are absolutely critical”. And on each occasion it has been true. The trouble is that it will also be true for the next few months, right up to the end of 2020.

The focus on the here and now is understandable: peoples’ first priority is to still be alive tomorrow. One consequence of concentrating on the short term position is that it obscures some of the long term changes that are going to affect our city, for which we need to be planning now. For example, the broad economic restructuring that is now inevitable, the urgency of the need for fundamental political reform, and the likely rise in emigration. These issues are linked.

Let’s start with the economy. The “temporary” restrictions on the way restaurants operate – wider space between tables, limit to number of diners per table etc – may have a minor impact on spread of the virus, but they are already having a major effect on the viability of the catering scene. Virtually all eating establishments are struggling. Nor is there an easy way forward. We could follow the example of some other cities and close them all for a spell, with compensation, but at the end of that period premises will still be absurdly expensive to rent. They have to be packed for most of the day to be viable. Takeout sales offer only partial relief.

It is a similar story with the retail sector, especially at the luxury end. Rents are far too high, landlords are unrelenting, sales volumes have to be substantial just for operators to make ends meet. The move to on-line retail has accelerated in response to the virus, which has added to the pressure on traditional shopping malls. Already several global brands are taking steps to reduce their street level presence, the latest being the Tiffany store in the heart of Tsimshatsui. Hong Kong is no longer a shoppers’ paradise.

The third economic sector to fall off a financial cliff is tourism. Of course the quarantine arrangements that we like other places have introduced are only temporary. But what does temporary mean? A month, a quarter, a year? The fact is nobody knows because for travel to resume on a mass scale requires the pandemic to be under control not just here at home, but also in all our major source markets. That situation will only be reached when a vaccine has been developed and there have been mass worldwide inoculations. There will be no quick recovery for our hotels, our travel industry, our tour operators.

Trade and logistics will also be seriously affected, though it is too early to assess the full extent.

In the next few weeks, many tens of thousands of Hongkongers are going to be laid off. Some of the job losses will be reversed when the economy recovers, but many will be gone permanently. Reshaping our economy to provide a sustainable livelihood for all our citizens will be a huge challenge requiring bold decision-making and confronting powerful interests.

It is at times of crisis like this that citizens look to their political leaders for comfort and reassurance that their community does have a future. It is in this aspect that our city is weakest. We have all watched the mesmerizing nightly press conferences from the USA by New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Even Donald Trump, despite his slow and inadequate response in the initial stages and his wild exaggerations since, has bolstered his image to a degree. Similarly with Boris Johnson in the UK.

But if you really want to see a political leader scoring in this area, try Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand or Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore. What do these two prime ministers and indeed all the other politicos I mentioned have in common? Two things: they are all democratically elected, and they have all put themselves front and centre in their governments’ public response to the crisis. Sad to say – and it is partly a reflection of the system rather than the individuals – we have nothing and no one to compare.

Who could look straight to camera and say to the people of Hong Kong “I owe my position to you, I am accountable to you. We will ride out this storm together”. Nobody. Because under our political structure the chief executive can only say “I owe my position to the vested interests who control the election committee, I am accountable mainly to Beijing. Good luck riding out the storm.”

The wide social gulf has also been accentuated by efforts to manage the crisis. It is hard enough for adequately housed professionals to work from home for protracted periods. What about those like taxi drivers or day labourers for whom that is not possible? Returning each evening to a cramped subdivided unit where a harassed wife and children have spent the day climbing the walls? Studying from home is an option for those with space, a laptop and ready access to the internet. What about the future prospects of those without them?

Emigration consultants are reporting high levels of enquiries. Removal companies are reporting record business as people change locations, predominantly outwards rather than inwards. Is that so surprising? We need to put ourselves in the position of professionals in their 20s or 30s, with a young family, looking for long term options about where to live. They need to be confident that the government in that place is not in thrall to vested interests, but rather will have a popular mandate to better address the challenges and make the changes that the society needs.

We recently lost our position as the world’s freest economy and have started to slip in the competitive cities index. Unless we make major changes to our political structure, Hong Kong will not be among the top choices for our best and brightest.