What happens after the virus fades?

March 06, 2020 16:32
A demonstrator holds a picture featuring Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam during a protest against her government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Bloomberg

The only thing that's absolutely certain about the coronavirus outbreak is that it will end. Less certain is the political fallout, but it’s highly likely to be bigger than anything seen after SARS.

The Tung Chee-hwa administration, too, faced considerable criticism over its handling of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak back in 2003. However, that pales in comparison to the level of criticism and anger over the Carrie Lam administration's bungling now.

When the SARS dust settled in 2004, Yeoh Eng-kiong, the then health secretary, resigned. He said he was doing so "to give an expression to the spirit of responsibility". It was the right thing to do and his reputation remained intact.

However no one in the Lam administration even contemplates resigning, no matter how badly they screw up. They think the so-called ‘responsibility system’ means the people should be held responsible for any mistakes made.

Although Dr Yeoh did the right thing, he could not save the Tung administration which was fatally wounded by the Chief Executive’s reluctance to act and his tone-deaf response to public opinion.
Astonishingly in some ways, but understandable in terms of Tung’s total inability to understand what was going on in Hong Kong, his first major political initiative after SARS involved getting Regina Ip, the then security secretary, to rush in with a national security bill that brought one million people onto the streets and forced her to also resign after the bill was shelved.

Fast forward to 2020 and we see the Hong Kong government maintaining its resolute determination to learn nothing from history. Under Carrie Lam, who is reluctant to scratch her nose without permission from Beijing, there was a long wait before mobilizing resources to combat the virus for the simple reason that Beijing was reluctant to admit to the depth of the problem.

Meanwhile three administrations – those of Donald Tsang, Leung Chun-ying and the current Lam regime -- had taken the brave decision to more or less ignore the findings of an inquiry established to learn the lessons of the SARS outbreak. Among its recommendations were the need to build up stocks of protective clothing and equipment and devise an extensive plan for establishing quarantine centers. Working on the principle that setting up a committee is always preferable to doing anything, nothing was done with results that are there for all to see.

What was also there to see was the burning anger of frontline medical staff who were alarmed by the government’s unwillingness to close the border to the Mainland, which was indisputably the source of the infection. And, just in case the anger looked like dissipating, it was reinforced when they learned that the police force would be first in line for protective clothing with medical staff coming second.

So, there is simmering anger, sporadic outbreaks of protests over ham-fisted attempts to locate quarantine centers in housing estates, followed by bewilderment over the government’s total failure to source face masks, and a much delayed and only partial attempt to bring Hong Kong residents back from Wuhan.

At every stage of this inadequate response to the coronavirus crisis official action was only taken after public pressure forced the government to act.

Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO) has responded to the crisis as only she can, by blaming people for failing to understand the complexity of the situation and for their selfishness in not wanting quarantine centers in their own backyards.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak the government’s credibility had already reached a new low with the CENO’s approval rating dangling only just above 9 percent. However, she had a chance to turn things around. As ever, it was an opportunity ducked.

Instead she has apparently been whinging to her bosses in Beijing about the lack of support she’s getting from the so-called pro-government camp, and she has resumed her most robotic of modes when in public.

She is, of course, a dead woman walking and it’s only a question of when, not if, she will be replaced. Given past form most of the waxworks in her administration will probably retain their jobs, aside from one or two sacrificial lambs (no pun intended).

But what of the protest movement that has gone into something of a lull since the beginning of the year? Optimists in the pro-China camp believe that it has run out of steam and that business as usual can be resumed, accompanied by a surge of arrests of those involved.

They really think that this is the Umbrella Movement all over again. But things have moved on to an extent that the protest movement has been woven into the lives of the people. Not just those against the government but also those supporting it. Does anyone seriously think that in the wake of a deeply flawed response to a major crisis the government will somehow be able to automatically regain the upper hand?

Even the CENO must know this is sheer fantasy but she and her bosses in Beijing may just opt for a far more dangerous way of extricating themselves from the coronavirus fallout which involves mobilizing not just the freelance thugs who have previously been brought into play but by attempting to fill the streets with a wider range of supporters ready to do battle with the democracy movement in the name of restoring order. It needs little imagination to see how this will pan out.

It's not just the CENO who is likely to face a harsh reckoning but also her bosses in Beijing. They have witnessed an outbreak of dissent over their handling of the crisis and will need to tackle a sharp economic downturn. They will be desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.

It’s hard to see how this could end well.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.