Hard Truths

At long last Hong Kong people have been told the plain unvarnished truth about the prospects of our community returning to pre pandemic normality. There is still a long way to go, of course, before we can get general acknowledgement of where we really are. And regrettably some members of the legislative council seem to be struggling to wrap their brains around current circumstances. But we should at least be able to have a sensible dialogue about options now that the truth is out there.

And for that we should give thanks to Dr Gabriel Leung Cheuk-wai, former under-secretary for health and now dean of the university of Hong Kong’s faculty of medicine.

For weeks the administration has been implying that success is just around the corner. The number of vaccinations each day is breathlessly reported, as is the number of days since the last locally transmitted infection (albeit with just a slight sleight of hand about the difference between imported and importation-related). The forecast for us to achieve a reasonable level of vaccination has gradually slipped to September, and expressed more as a pious hope than a firm target with an implementation plan.

This reticence is justified. The best guide to what is going on is probably the table on vaccinations per hundred of population. As at the end of last week, the figures for our nearest comparators were as follows: United Arab Emirates (including Dubai) 168; Singapore 120; Mainland 106; Macau 73; Hong Kong 66. That’s right, we are last. These are the numbers that feed directly into the percentages of total population that have been wholly or partly vaccinated. Not to hammer home the point too much, the figures for Singapore and Hong Kong are 73 and 38 per cent respectively. Moreover, their figures exclude the small number there who had the Sinovac jab, because of its lower efficacy, whereas they are more than a third of ours. Rounding off, Singapore has achieved about twice the Hong Kong level.

Remember, the sort of figure we are looking for here is 70 per cent or more.

Fewer than three million Hongkongers are at present wholly or partly vaccinated after five months of the exercise. That compares with the 6.1 million registered for the consumption voucher scheme within two weeks of its launch as reported by Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po in his blog last weekend. An incredible 2.3 million had registered for the scheme within the first 24 hours. Imagine how much more successful we would have been if the two schemes had been linked, with vaccination a pre-requisite for the $5,000 handout. We would already have reached herd immunity.

Professor Leung’s forecast is that we might reach 70 percent with at least one jab by October but that won’t be enough to open our borders and return to a degree of normality before the middle of 2022. His advice is to focus on vulnerable groups and reach 80 per cent vaccination of the elderly in care homes as a priority. Until then we cannot change our strategy of going for complete elimination, with all the adverse economic consequences and social controls. He forecast that both the mainland and Macau would be reluctant to open their borders to us until vaccination numbers were very much better. The mainland’s declared target is herd immunity by the end of the year.

Meanwhile a number of countries have reached the conclusion that complete elimination of the virus is a pipe dream and we must learn to live with the reality that it is here to stay. Both the United States and Britain have resumed normal lifestyle to some degree, though not without controversy. The sight of 60,000 mask-less football fans at Wembley stadium watching England lose to Italy was a surprise to many. The scene on the eve of “Liberation Day”, when UK social controls would be dropped, of thousands waiting to go to nightclubs and bars as soon as the clock struck midnight seemed reckless to many in Asia.

Singapore has similar vaccination numbers as the two western nations and has accepted the same truth, but is proceeding much more cautiously in easing up.

Discussions in Legco earlier this month were critical of Singapore’s decision to abandon the effort to achieve zero infections. Some members such as FTU stalwart Alice Mak Mei-kuen said we should cease to negotiate a travel bubble with the city. But if we look back at the statistics quoted above, the surprise is that anyone is still prepared to consider having a bubble with us.

Let us put all the facts on the table and decide what to do next. COVID-19 is a nasty virus capable of causing damage to health and even death. It is now endemic. Different variants can spread quickly with the risk that further mutations can develop. The only way to stop the disease in its tracks is mass vaccination. We can minimize the number of infections and protect the most vulnerable but only by adopting a fortress mentality with serious adverse economic and other consequences and by enforcing tiresome social distancing rules. We have fumbled our best chance at achieving herd immunity, and have failed to protect the most vulnerable. Continuing with our present policies and relying on voluntary take-up will not get us to where we need to be within an acceptable timescale and meanwhile will leave us open to more serious mutations developing.

Various countries around the world have made vaccination mandatory for certain groups of employees, for example staff of care homes. Others have introduced more draconian social rules, for example France requiring vaccination of customers for entry to all bars and restaurants. Some employers in Hong Kong have made promotion and eligibility for bonuses conditional on staff vaccination. We should shrug off our lackadaisical approach and do the same, starting with health workers and the civil service.