Reality Check

All of us in Hong Kong have been shocked and appalled these last two weeks by the terrible scenes from India of the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic. A run of over 350,000 new cases per day, hospitals with two patients per bed not to mention those left outside dying in the carpark, relatives fighting to bring oxygen tanks to loved ones gasping for air, these are surely scenes from hell. The contrast with our own calm and orderly life here could scarcely be more stark.

But before we become too smug and congratulate ourselves on our good fortune, we need to bear in mind an important statistic: our vaccination rate is still abysmally low at a little over 11 per cent for a minimum one dose (around six per cent fully vaccinated). It is not much more than India’s. The last thing we want is to tempt fate by continuing our present slow pace, we need to take urgent action to boost take-up.

It is important to recognize that all the good work we have done up to now on social distancing, working from home, track and trace, mask-wearing etc, while it has helped keep infection rates low, is not the end of the story. These are interim arrangements, not the ultimate objective. They have helped stabilize the situation for the time being but are not a long-term solution. For life to get back to anything like normal, and for our economy to recover, we have to reach herd immunity with effective vaccination of over 70 per cent of the population. Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po warned recently that our economy, while recovering slightly, remained well below full strength.

That is why including the requirement for full vaccination in the travel bubble deal with Singapore is a step in the right direction. Never mind that it is not reciprocal, (although that would have been better) we should quickly follow up with other carrots – and some sticks. The administration has already made clear every other bubble arrangement we manage to conclude will include a similar requirement. Quite right too.

Some other obvious carrots could be exempting from quarantine vaccinated Hongkongers returning from anywhere. Similarly, those protected can be let off the automatic detention suffered by “close contacts”.

The saying “An army, like a serpent, marches on its belly” is normally credited to Napoleon. The government has recognized the truth behind this expression: it sees Hongkongers well known love of dining out as the next great opportunity to drive up vaccination rates. I see nothing wrong in giving special privileges to bars and restaurants that are able to persuade all staff to get the jab. At some point in future it could even be a licensing condition. Of course, special arrangements will have to be made for those who for whatever reason cannot be vaccinated, but this inability must be certified by a government doctor, not just self-declared. Some have mooted the idea of an exemption on religious grounds, but I don’t agree. Different faiths should be respected, but no religious belief, however sincerely held, confers on the follower the right to sacrifice the lives of others.

Extending the “vaccination required” arrangement to diners is surely also correct in principle. The issues will be practicality and ease of policing. I am totally unimpressed with the argument that the existing LeaveHomeSafe App is too complicated for some people to download. If like me you really are a technology klutz then do not despair, impatient diners in the queue behind you will be eager to help. It will be the same for the imminent new App recording vaccination status. Making its use compulsory will be resisted by some “in principle” – danged if I can see what that principle is – but they can always eat at home, or order takeout. They won’t starve unless they choose to.

Some see it as unfair to turn restaurant and bar bosses into unwitting (or unwilling) agents of government policy in this way. But while bringing these businesses back to life is an important objective in its own right on economic and employment grounds, it must take second place to the overall community target of herd immunity.

Are there other measures we could consider? How about making vaccination on arrival compulsory for all residents returning here (first jab at the airport, second at the end of the quarantine period). This could also apply to domestic helpers arriving to start new contracts, and even to those seeking to renew while remaining in Hong Kong. If all else fails, should we proceed by employment category – all medical workers; staff of care homes; disciplined services; civil servants; their families? There would be resistance to any such proposals and in some cases legal complications as well.

As a side issue, one has to ask why there is such continuing vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong despite the chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor having very publically started the ball rolling by getting vaccinated, along with several of her top officials, in front of the media. There has also been a cacophony of announcements in the public interest on television, radio and in print. It is almost as if Hongkongers are resisting protecting themselves from a deadly virus solely or largely because the government is advocating it. Unpopularity, or lack of credibility, should be a concern in Western District and indeed further north. Possibly this lack of confidence by the administration in itself has contributed to the decision to go for the “nudge, nudge” dining out route rather than risk confrontation by pursuing more draconian options. A sad commentary on local affairs.

Be that as it may, the best way forward for ordinary citizens is to do what we always do when there is a job to be done: roll up our sleeves and get on with it.