“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains” wrote the great French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. Hong Kong has brought his saying bang up to date: man is born free, but is everywhere in masks. Or registering his entry to the restaurant, or queuing at the Covid test centre.
Because we live here and have grown accustomed to the package of control measures, we have grown numb to the comprehensiveness of them, and the extraordinary degree to which they have affected our daily lives. Our testing rules are bizarre: every school child every day, workers in many industries several times a week if not daily, one before we board a plane to return home and an incredible 11 in the first week after arrival. Registering our presence and confirming vaccination status on entry to many types of premises. And compulsory wearing of masks everywhere, even outdoors, unless exercising. How strange this package must seem to outsiders.
We cheered when within hours of taking office the present administration scrapped the flight suspension mechanism (why was it ever introduced? How did it survive so long?) and cheered again when the draconian quarantine arrangements were repeatedly unwound. But the price of these concessions was more testing, and introduction of the notorious banquet RAT rule whereby 200 separate people can be eating in the same restaurant at the same time without difficulty but if 13 of them are there to celebrate the same event the whole party must produce a negative test result.
The underlying philosophy of such a system can mean only one thing: deep in their hearts the members of the chief executive’s panel of expert advisers believe zero Covid is, after all, achievable. I have described them before as high priests of a fundamentalist religion. Despite all the evidence to the contrary from around the world and indeed our own experience, they seem to believe it could be done if only we were more devout and tried even harder. Perhaps if everyone could be persuaded to test themselves every day, or would register their presence everywhere when not at home, or wear masks 24 hours a day even when alone in bed at night…Yes, we’ll show the whole world the superiority of our religion.
Faced with such an approach, many ordinary citizens are finding ways to subtly dissent. People testing positive decide not to report, just stay home for a few days until recovery. The same RAT result is used several times, with only the date being amended, or an entertainment venue keeps a bowl of negative test results at the entrance for use by untested customers. I see increasing numbers of people on the streets whose masks have slipped down below their nose, or even their chin. Not to mention the patchy compliance in the government stadium (and outright mutiny in the south stand) at the Rugby Sevens, including it has to be said several government ministers. But this kind of civil disobedience is not healthy as it implies loss of respect for the administration.
Where do we go from here? Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu insists the direction is clear and the government will ease up further as quickly as possible while keeping the pandemic situation manageable. Yet already one of the advisers has said masks must stay on throughout the winter because of the danger of a flu outbreak, and the situation can be reviewed next summer. Which is exactly what we were told this time last year. More goalposts on the move like the vaccination threshold. Lee has endorsed this approach at least in respect of the flu season. What this means in practice is no tourists until the middle of next year at the earliest.
Paradoxically, it is the prolonged wearing of masks for almost three years which has put Hongkongers at greater risk from flu. Ordinary viruses have not been circulating routinely so general immunity levels in the community have been falling. By being so prudent in the interests of safety with respect to one virus, we have rendered Hongkongers more vulnerable to flu than ever before.
There are three kinds of passengers using our newly expanded airport: resident Hongkongers coming and going; close friends and relatives coming to visit them; various parties in the commercial sphere obliged to visit for business reasons. There are virtually zero casual leisure tourists or businessmen scouting for new opportunities. Our Covid package is a positive disincentive. And the consequences have been revealed to all in recently published GDP figures: Singapore (open), positive economic growth of three per cent, Hong Kong (effectively closed) negative by the same percentage.
There is no escaping this last point. We are only fooling ourselves if we claim our city is opening up when it obviously isn’t. The most we can say is that we are on the way. Potential visitors are perfectly entitled to reply “well let us know when you get there”. The recent Financial Summit and Law Week were very successful, but only because participants benefitted from various exemptions. We need many more such events, and more are promised. But their impact is definitely blunted if they can only succeed provided the normal protocols are not applied.
Lee led a delegation to the APEC meeting in Bangkok last week to talk up Hong Kong as a place to do business. This was a good move and in terms of economic fundamentals there was a lot for him to brag about. But think how much more compelling the case would have been if he had been able to say in a final flourish: Hong Kong is open now, come and see for yourself.
He urged us last week not to obsess about 0+0 and he is right: we should focus on dispensing with the entire package.