Vaccine Debate

China is the only major economy applying a policy of zero tolerance for Covid. So far the policy has been sustained reasonably well with damage to the mainland economy kept at manageable levels. But even the best policies need to be reviewed from time to time in the light of changing circumstances. This can result in fine-tuning or even complete reversal. Obviously, Beijing is not going to change its policy before conclusion of the winter Olympics, but once the skiers and skaters have gone home an opportunity arises for a national debate. As a core member of the Chinese family, Hong Kong is entitled to join the conversation.

The national leaders will be balancing the overall interests of the whole country. It is possible the review will conclude that the existing policy should be retained for the time being, even if some cities and provinces might be hard hit. The next trigger for review might be when mainland pharmaceutical companies manage to master mRNA technologies, or there is a policy decision to import from elsewhere, to boost protection levels.

Even if the mainland opts for status quo, it is still open to the SAR, as a separate immigration entity, to pursue a different policy. Our circumstances are not the same. How can we be an international transport hub when demand for inbound passenger flights has virtually collapsed. Even the home airline is struggling to maintain a comprehensive network. Other international airlines are starting to drop Hong Kong from their schedules and relocating flight crews elsewhere.

The existing containment arrangements, especially in the way they are being implemented, are unreasonable and unsustainable. There is widespread pandemic fatigue.

Hong Kong’s present social policies can be summarised as “Protect the unvaccinated, punish the vaccinated, and if in doubt sacrifice the children”. To this dismal litany can now be added a fourth strand “When finished screwing things up for the humans, start killing the animals”.

It did not need to be like this. The administration started out so well on the road to mass vaccination. A year ago, Hong Kong had secured adequate supplies of two different vaccines, offered citizens a free choice without charge and set up dedicated centres to administer the jabs. But after this near-perfect beginning, the government failed to respond adequately when vaccine enthusiasm waned. As daily numbers declined in the middle of last year it was left to the private sector to step in with special offers and incentives. The government relied on public education. After the short-term boost, numbers fell away again with the result that Hong Kong has the lowest vaccination rate of anywhere in China. The government speaks of 80% of eligible persons, but since everyone is vulnerable to catching the virus we need to be over 90 % of the whole population to be safe.

We are all now paying the price for this lack of vigour. Whenever there is a new outbreak or wave of infection, authorities resort to the same old playbook of closing restaurants, swimming pools, gyms and beauty parlours etc. These closures are across the board, affecting the vaccinated and unvaccinated equally. Similarly with the arrangements for quarantining new arrivals and close contacts. Never mind if you did the responsible thing and are fully vaccinated, you will be treated in the same way as the free riders. Surely we know enough about the virus by now to differentiate treatment according to vaccination status.

Most damagingly, there is a readiness to disrupt the education of our children by closing schools. We know from experience here and overseas that this sets back education of the students concerned with adverse effects that linger for life. The loss is particularly severe for children from poorer families.

Youngsters are also the biggest losers from the decision to cull hamsters and other small pets. In fact the whole of the administration response to the pandemic is riddled with illogicality. Why is it safe to travel in a crowded carriage on the MTR in peak periods but dangerous to play with three other people on a tennis court? Why is it OK to dine with a small group for lunch but dangerous for the same people to dine together in the same restaurant for dinner? Dogs and cats have also been diagnosed with COVID and mingle more intimately with their owners, whereas hamsters and other small creatures tend to be kept in separate cages. Where is the logic?

The justification given for the various measures is “to prevent widespread community transmission” which sounds plausible. But this is merely code for “to protect the unvaccinated”. Why are the people who behaved in a socially responsible way being punished while special efforts – at great cost – are being expended to protect those hesitant to protect themselves.

A restaurant where the chefs, servers and diners are all fully vaccinated should be allowed to open, with unvaccinated systematically excluded. The same with bars, gyms, supermarkets, wet markets and other venues.

Already there are calls for another round of handouts in the upcoming budget. There is a case for further relief measures but not direct cash subsidies to businesses. What they need is customers not handouts. We know from experience employees will likely benefit little or nothing and even employers will only get a breathing space. The main beneficiaries will be landlords as establishments keep up with rent payments but furlough workers. We should open the venues and give direct handouts to fully vaccinated individuals to patronise them. Customers will be happily dining out again, workers will keep their jobs, bosses will make profits and yes, at the end of the line, landlords will get their rents.

The present situation is like a scene from Kafka. It is time for a fundamental re-think.