Chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor raised eyebrows earlier this month when she said in response to a reporter’s question that she did not know what was meant by “dynamic clearing”. It would be for the “guilty party” (始作俑者), who had devised the term, to explain.
In fact the expression – sometimes rendered as “dynamic zero” – is a direct translation of the Putonghua name for the mainland’s policy for dealing with the Covid 19 situation. Lam’s reply drew a direct response from two left wing newspapers here, one of which headlined the official term in its front-page story.
What does the expression actually mean? In brief, mainland policy is to allow life within the country to go on pretty much as normal as far as possible, but then to come down like a ton of bricks whenever there is an outbreak. Thus, facilities like restaurants and gyms are open and people are moving around freely. Above all, schools are operating normally and students are in class. There is no mask mandate in Beijing; many people choose to wear masks but they are only required to do so in certain buildings and parks.
When a case of Covid is detected, reaction from authorities is fierce and immediate. There is a total localised lockdown, closure of facilities that might be infected to facilitate cleansing, compulsory testing of all close contacts, and quarantining of everyone who might be affected. In extreme cases whole cities can be locked down. Individual clusters of infection are “cleared” dynamically.
The vaccination rate in the mainland is over 90 per cent (over 3 billion vaccinations administered). This fact, plus the robust but measured response to infections has helped to minimise adverse effects on the economy which continues to grow. China’s trade surplus with the rest of the world is at an all-time high.
Contrast all this with the situation in Hong Kong where the vaccination rate on a “total population” basis has just reached 73 per cent (Singapore 87, Taiwan and Macau, 81). The situation for the most vulnerable is worst of all: for 60,000 residents in care homes, 22 per cent; those aged 80 and above, 32 per cent; even 70 – 79 just 61 per cent. Is this really the best we can do within a year of vaccines becoming available?
The administration seems to have recently co-opted the term of dynamic zero, but the policy is different in application. Efforts at track and trace continue but somewhat ineffectively as the system has been overwhelmed by a huge surge in numbers. Lockdowns of individual buildings known to house a single patient are conducted, but recently more reliance has been placed on testing samples of sewage and following up on a district basis. Residents of and visitors to the Discovery Bay development have just been ordered to get tested.
Meanwhile there has been whole-scale closure of facilities, presumably on some kind of pre-emptive basis, even when no infections have been found. For example, all gyms have been closed even if all staff and patrons are fully vaccinated and there have been no infections traceable back to individual establishments. The same applies to swimming pools, beauty parlours and other facilities. Instead of applying set criteria to restaurants on a selective basis according to vaccination status and infection record, all restaurants have been subjected to stringent operation requirements (e.g. no in-house dining after 6 pm, two persons per table etc).
The catering and entertainment sectors are being driven into bankruptcy. If our tourism sector ever recovers – which is by now questionable – there may not be any venues left for visitors to go to.
Two obvious questions arise and on a recent RTHK talk show which I co-host, I asked them. Why, I wanted to know, was the government being so slow to introduce vaccine passports and so tentative in its approach. No sooner had the scheme been announced than the commencement date was postponed. The initial one dose requirement was only slowly increased to two or more doses. A member of the government’s advisory panel on Covid vaccines, who was a guest on the show, immediately agreed and said an earlier introduction and faster escalation would have had his support.
The other question related to closure of schools. This is a particular bugbear of mine because all research shows that keeping children out of the classroom has a serious adverse effect which lingers for many years. An expert from HKU immediately agreed: all children should be back in school, there was no good reason for barring them. What we are doing to our children, denying them in-class teaching when we know how damaging it is to their future, is immoral.
The contrast between approaches can be illustrated at a personal level. There is a young boy in Beijing approaching his eighth birthday. He has two grandfathers, one on his mother’s side resides in Shenzhen, the other on his father’s side in Hong Kong. Both parents are operating their businesses normally and the boy is in school. Shenzhen grandpa was able to join the family for Lunar New Year and get a hug. Hong Kong grandpa was not able to join.
Of course we all have a “grandfather” in Beijing. No doubt he was planning to be here on 1 July to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover and to swear in the next term government. I hope his visit can still go ahead and the new cabinet will find ways to get us out of this mess. I also hope there will be room on the plane for a small extra passenger. Someone down here badly needs a hug.