We live in a world where the media swamps us daily with bad news from all around the globe. Wars, natural disasters, famines, diseases, a veritable tidal wave of reasons to be miserable, so much so that we learn to mentally switch off. Otherwise life would be intolerable. We start to ignore negative news and become blasé about headlines reporting the latest tragedy.
So I surprised myself recently when one story in this newspaper stopped me dead in my tracks and I could not stop thinking about it: “Suicide is more of a threat to young people than Covid” ran the headline. The article went on to quote Paul Yip Kwok-wah, Chair Professor (Population Health) in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at Hong Kong University. Yip is coincidentally Founding Director and chairman of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention.
A related article put forward strong arguments why our schools should remain open despite occasional surges in the number of Covid cases. Because of repeated school closures, the education and social lives of our young people have been massively disrupted over the past two and a half years. Their mental health and social development have been badly affected. School-based activities help students interact with each other and develop social bonds that provide mutual emotional support in times of stress.
The various social distancing measures introduced to fight the pandemic, accompanied by periodic lack of schooling, have resulted in many young people avoiding in person social activities and spending more time hunched over their tablets engaging on social media instead. I have even seen young people at the same table texting each other instead of speaking. Not surprisingly the number suffering from depression has grown sharply and there has been a significant increase in the suicide rate.
Other countries have recognized these problems and tried to keep schools open wherever possible, whereas in Hong Kong closure has tended to be a countermeasure of first resort.
A cynic might say that Yip is simply taking the opportunity to beat the drum for his own area of study, but I do not see it that way. On the contrary I think he has done us all a public service by drawing our attention to a serious health issue quite separate from the virus itself. I cannot be the only person to see similar issues arising among older people too. Public morale is way down and badly needs a boost.
The anti-Covid measures have touched so many areas of our lives: quarantine on arrival; verifying vaccination status; temperature checks on entry to buildings and (sometimes) individual units within them; frequent testing; constantly recording whereabouts using LeaveHomeSafe app; extensive masking requirement. Taken individually these measures may be more or less understandable and acceptable. But taken together they are burdensome and have the effect of detracting from the quality of everyday life.
There has been considerable speculation in recent days that the government would abolish the quarantine requirement for arrivals and indeed announced on Friday a 0 + 3 formula, no days in quarantine hotel, plus three days self surveillance. This change is most welcome as is replacing the pre boarding PCR test with an RAT. I am not sure how this will help potential visitors but at least Hongkongers can take some with them on holiday. There will still be a PCR test on arrival, but no need to wait for the result, another major improvement.
I have argued strongly for dropping the mask mandate outdoors as part of any relaxation package. No doubt some members of the medical fraternity, which under the previous administration was given almost total control of dealing with the pandemic, will object. Like high priests of a fundamentalist religion, they see only greater control as the way forward. But dealing with a pandemic is a multifaceted issue, not a single dimension one.
Every morning when we step outside our front doors what is the first thing we see? The whole of society masked up, anonymous with no facial expressions visible. Such a situation is unnatural, inhuman and depressing. Scrapping the outdoor mask mandate would send a clear signal that better times are ahead, that the end of the road is in sight.
I set out suggestions for other phased relaxation measures in a previous column so will not repeat them here. But what chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu can and must do now is make it clear there will be further phases soon and the ultimate goal is complete removal of all the controls.
There have been two recent tightening measures, justification for which is a mystery. The first is a new interpretation of the rules concerning sports clubs. Previously every visitor recorded time of entry and departure, then if anyone tests positive, everyone present at the same time is notified to get tested. Sports clubs have many different facilities: a gym, a pool, a sports shop, a library, dining facilities etc. The recent reinterpretation now requires every visitor to record presence at every facility separately. This makes no sense. Even if paths did not cross in any single facility, they might still have crossed in the common areas such as the entrance hall, the corridors, bathrooms etc. So if anyone tests positive, everyone present wherever they were should be told to get tested.
The other measure was introduction of the “Rule of 8”. If more than that number are meeting for a single event with food and drink being consumed then everyone must produce a recent negative RAT even if they are spread over different tables. So a meeting with 20 people requires an RAT, whereas 200 people in a restaurant at the same time does not,
These two measures do nothing for public health, they serve only to feed public hysteria. They were introduced by the high priests so they could be seen to be doing something when numbers briefly grew. They should be dropped without further ado.