The most urgent thing Hongkongers need right now is a boost to their morale and confidence. And that will only come when they feel the authorities here have a clear strategy for dealing with the pandemic and a coherent, logical plan to implement it. They want to see a road back to normality. All they can see at the moment is an administration imitating a bunch of headless chickens.
Earlier this month I posted on Facebook about three reports which had appeared in the local media in the space of 24 hours: "There will not be a lockdown". "There might be a lockdown". "Lockdown starts 17 March". The source of all three was different government officials either directly on the record, or by way of a background briefing. How were citizens supposed to take comfort from this, and from the assurance there was no need to panic? They did not take comfort, of course, and duly stripped supermarket shelves bare.
The collapse in public morale recently when the number of new infections went over 50,000 per day, two years after the pandemic began, was palpable. Then it was all for nothing, friends said to me, referring to the sacrifices of the last two years. It is easy to understand the long faces. We could forgive the administration the privations of the first year of the pandemic. After all, it was new, nobody had a complete answer, and by enforcing strict social distancing Hong Kong had a good record in terms of number of infections and related deaths.
But we squandered the benefits of vaccination by failing to drive take-up rates. The decision in the 2021 budget to give everyone $5,000 unconditionally was a missed opportunity. Incredibly, we have just made the same mistake in the 2022 budget and even doubled the ante. The long delay in implementing vaccine passes was another. So here we are, back where we started, with hundreds more dead and thousands more infected.
What should be our priority in the next few weeks? It must surely be to reduce the number of deaths, starting with protecting the most vulnerable. We know who they are and where many of them live, they are elderly unvaccinated residents of care homes. The first job must be to vaccinate them. All talk of mass testing with or without different degrees of lockdown can wait until that task has been completed. We may well have to do those other things later but in the meantime they will only suck up resources that can be better used elsewhere. With the help of doctors and nurses from the mainland we should form special teams to systematically visit every care home, urging and providing vaccinations. Given that many occupants are deemed not mentally competent to decide such things for themselves, we should consider how to use the emergency health regulations to make taking the jab the default option unless a doctor certifies exemption on medical grounds.
Once our overall vaccination rate exceeds 90 per cent, we can consider other steps. The initial idea of three rounds of compulsory testing may no longer be practicable. With estimates of persons already infected now running at over two million, there is no prospect of sufficient facilities being available to take in all concerned, let alone their close contacts. Hospital beds must be reserved for the most seriously ill. The general population will have to be coached in the techniques of “self-triage”. Given the close personal interest of President Xi Jinping in tackling the problem and his deployment of so many senior officials to help, it is important that a comprehensive plan of action be devised with the help and explicit endorsement of mainland experts. It then needs to be communicated clearly by public press conference. It must be seen to be fair, treating everyone equally irrespective of status according to clear criteria. The informal assurance to senior business figures that they would be given special treatment, being circulated on social media, should be specifically rebutted. The option of self-quarantine at home, if appropriate, must be open to all.
What should the road ahead look like? It must progressively take aim at three things: quarantine; social distancing; mask mandate. Given that the incubation period of omicron is 3 – 5 days, there is a strong case for the quarantine period to be reduced immediately from 14 to seven days whether for arrivals or for new local infections/close contacts. My son flew in last week from Beijing: one negative test before boarding, one more on landing, then straight home with no quarantine. If such a sensible scheme can be allowed for visitors from the mainland, why can it not be extended to those from Singapore and other places with reliable medical certificates?
Some of the social distancing requirements can be loosened immediately. We have the vaccine passports, now let’s use them. Controls on entry to hairdressers were relaxed last Thursday, which is welcome, but there is no consistency or explanation. There should be a similar relaxation for beauty parlours, gyms, swimming pools and so on. Dining in after 6 pm must also return forthwith before the catering industry goes into terminal decline.
Finally there is the compulsory wearing of masks in all circumstances. Long-term wearing of face covering is not healthy, physically, socially or psychologically. Many Hongkongers have shown no difficulty in wearing masks since the pandemic broke out. But those who engage in vigorous exercise find them uncomfortable, even dangerous. Facial expressions are an important communication tool, between parents and children, teachers and students, colleagues in the office and youngsters in social settings etc. Depriving people of this tool inhibits socialization. Some wearers suffer panic attacks akin to drowning if airwaves are blocked. For all these reasons we should all be doing our best to put mask days behind us.
The faster we make progress in all these aspects, the more Hong Kong will feel like home again, somewhere we belong, and less like a prison we want to escape from.