It is now clear that the first action incoming chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu needs to take on 1 July as soon as he has been sworn in is to open up Hong Kong to the outside world, and within the SAR to its own people.
There is not a moment to lose. The sight of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant being towed out of Aberdeen Harbour has been seen all over the world and interpreted by many – friend and foe alike – as symptomatic of our demise. It has also seriously damaged morale here at home.
But this is just a symptom of what is wrong. The root cause is the sense of panic, veering on hysteria, which has gripped the entire community on the subject of Covid 19. The government and the media share responsibility for creating and sustaining this feeling of doom, but only the government can lead us out of it.
Take the issue of numbers: every government statement and news bulletin for months has led with the headline figure of cases detected in the preceding 24 hours. Yet we know, we all know, that what counts is the resulting number of new hospitalisations and of those the number of patients requiring treatment in intensive care. These are the best indicators of the seriousness of the outbreak which we need to understand so as to minimise deaths. We know enough about Covid to understand that 100 cases per day could represent disaster whereas 1,000 or even 10,000 might be relatively inconsequential. So why do we lead every news report with the crudest number?
Just last week, health secretary Sophia Chan Siu-yee quoted the rising daily figure as justification for an absurd new clampdown on bars. This misguided focus helps generate competition for fresh angles on the same basic story, hence follow up items on individual families who enjoyed a hotpot dinner going down one by one, or children who enjoyed a happy meal with their parents being diagnosed a day after Mum. Is that really news? There is even a special radio show every weekday to describe latest developments – even if there are none. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.
Then there is the question of sense of proportion: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has just reported his second bout of the virus. He was returning from an international conference, expects to work from home for a few days then resume normal duties. Aging rock star Mick Jagger – last seen performing here in 2003 – has apologised for cancelling a concert in Europe, but promised at (the age of 78) to be back in full voice on stage shortly. These are all routine reports, evidence of business as usual. Yet here in Hong Kong we treat every single case as if it were the end of the world.
Government action, or instances of inaction, feed the hysteria. For example, all returning Hong Kong residents should be offered the option of home quarantine. This decision could and should have been made months ago. Such a simple step would have transformed morale. People would have been much more willing to travel freely if there was no requirement to book an expensive hotel in advance for their return, and for those testing negative fate would be a few days working from home. Even those testing positive could have a choice of detention in a government facility or if domestic circumstances permit a closely monitored home quarantine. Instead we have clung on to a system which requires healthy people to be incarcerated in a small hotel room. There have been documented cases of some of them contracting infection.
And can we please have some sensible rules on mask wearing. For months we shut all the beaches and swimming pools, probably the safest places in the city. And we insisted on mask wearing everywhere, even in country parks. But wearing a mask is not normal behaviour, it is abnormal and unpleasant especially in a Hong Kong summer. It should be reduced as far as possible, for example restricted to crowded places such as public transport in rush hours. The recent relaxation to exempt persons undertaking outdoor exercise was welcome but should have gone much further. How about when walking the dog early morning, or last thing at night?
We were absolutely right to push strongly for vaccination but do we really need all this testing? Medical workers treating others in close proximity yes, but every schoolchild, every day? And the new requirement for entry to bars and nightclubs invites derision and widespread non-compliance. Some senior government officials are insisting that subordinates test themselves daily before agreeing to meeting, a practice now spreading to the private sector in normal business dealings. Lift passengers eye each other suspiciously as if the others are ninjas waiting to attack.
In short, Hongkongers are now treating the city as if it were a giant leper colony, ringing a bell and shouting “unclean”. Is it any wonder that outsiders don’t want to come here, and even long term committed citizens, Chinese and foreign alike, are exploring options to leave.
Many of us have friends and relatives elsewhere and we all have access to international media. We know this is not how communities elsewhere are handling the pandemic. Our economy is struggling and tourism has collapsed. All talk of the rugby sevens going ahead and major business conferences putting us back on the map is simply pie in the sky unless we open our doors and welcome visitors without quarantine. Let them see our smiling faces.
Mr Lee, we need you to banish the fear, give us back our confidence and our lives.