Govt needs to take more radical measures to fight epidemic

February 21, 2020 18:38
Customers wearing masks walk past empty shelves at a supermarket amid panic-buying in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Reuters

Amid the raging coronavirus epidemic, the SAR government’s main strategy to fight the disease is to quarantine infected patients and trace other potential virus spreaders.

The problem is, the flu-like virus has proven to be so severe and tricky that a person who has contracted it may show no symptoms at all during the incubation period while still being able to “quietly” spread it to others.

That being the case, the current isolation and tracing strategy might not be enough to cut the disease transmission chain in the community.

The Hong Kong government may need to adopt a more radical approach to containing the deadly coronavirus.

Simply put, our citizens must be “armed” with three tools at all times: face masks, hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes.

Unfortunately, all these three items are in extremely short supply these days, with citizens, particularly the elderly, often queuing up for hours on end just to try their luck in getting one of those.

It is against such a backdrop that there are now mounting calls from the public for the government to monopolize the sale and distribution of these commodities, with both their supply and prices strictly regulated. The administration, however, has repeatedly rejected such calls, citing by free-market principles.

I feel compelled to take issue with the government on this matter. Under some specific circumstances, price and supply control of certain commodities is also enforced in free capitalist economies.

One striking example is rice. Under the existing Reserved Commodities Ordinance, the stocks are regulated in order to indirectly affect the selling prices and control the supply.

Besides, in the current social atmosphere, I believe the vast majority of the public will be supportive of government initiatives to regulate the sale of face masks.

Everybody knows that these would only be short-term measures to address the emergency situation, and therefore won’t undermine our free market mechanism in the long run.

So if there is public clamor for such an action, what else is stopping the government from doing it?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ contributor