A big, big apology is due to the people of Hong Kong

April 07, 2020 08:29
In the United States and Europe, panic buying has not only been more prolonged than Hong Kong but covers a far wider variety of products. Photo: Reuters

The time has come for certain people to make sincere apologies to the people of Hong Kong.

Remember how the usual suspects sneered at Hongkongers for panic buying of toilet paper etc? That surge of panic came and went pretty swiftly. Compare this with what happened in the United States and Europe where panic buying has not only been more prolonged but covers a far wider variety of products.

What underlies this panic buying is however the same – it emanates from a lack of trust in government. Hong Kong people had quite understandable reasons for thinking that the Lam administration did not have a grip on the coronavirus situation. Elsewhere in the world citizens have raised similar doubts about their governments, not least the one presided over by a self-described ‘scientific genius’ who confidently predicted that the virus would be seen to be a hoax. So, there was nothing special about the way Hong Kong people responded, it’s just that they got over the panic quicker.

There was however no panic buying in places where confidence in government was high and preparations had been made precisely for this kind of eventuality. Taiwan and Switzerland are good examples of this.
Hongkongers had to take matters into their hands when in the early stages of the outbreak they saw the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO) doing her usual disappearing act, followed by a long hiatus while she worked out what her bosses in Beijing wanted her to do, followed by a series of panicky and erratic official responses that did nothing to encourage confidence.

Second, in the apology stakes, are the people who were agitating for the arrest and dismissal of health workers whose exasperation over the failure of the government to close the border with the Mainland led to industrial action. You know who you are, Regina Ip etc.

Eventually and very grudgingly the government followed their advice and all but closed down the border. Naturally not a word of apology was made to the hospital staff who had urged them to do so. Elsewhere in the world people who work in hospitals are showered with praise by their governments, in Hong Kong such praise comes along with qualifications.
Arguably the biggest of all apologies needs to be made by the CENO and her team of waxworks. They have blundered their way through this crisis, anxious to preserve their unbroken record for mind boggling incompetence.

Remember this is the “dream team” that has singularly failed to secure supplies of personal protective equipment, notably facemasks. The fact that Hong Kong has supplies is entirely due to the efforts of individuals, companies and NGOs.

And it’s the same dream team that had to be forced kicking and screaming into evacuating Hong Kong residents from Wuhan, at least a month after other jurisdictions had completed evacuation programmes. Indeed evacuations from other parts of Hubei are still not completed – more than two months after everyone else finished the job.

Other governments have also shown themselves to be pretty incompetent but at least they are learning from their mistakes. Not so Team Lam, this week, for example, it ordered the temporary shutdown of places like karaoke lounges and mahjong parlours, giving them precisely 4 minutes notice of the closure order. Is this really how things are being run these days?

More inexcusable is the total absence of a safety net for workers who have been laid off or are taking unpaid leave as the economy contracts and businesses are floundering to survive. As ever the government was quick to find money for business owners but has come up with nothing for those with less to begin with. Instead it conjured up a plan to offer everyone, from billionaires to the penniless, a HK$10,000 handout, to be paid sometime in August, just before the Legco elections. This is clearly too little, too little late and way too misdirected.

While the government has singularly failed to help many of those forced out of work, they are being supported by voluntary organisations and, more substantially, by their families banding together to help.

What usually happens at times like these is that incumbent leaders get a popularity boost simply for being in charge and highly visible as they go about their work. Astonishingly this boost has benefited even Donald Trump in the United States and the equally hapless Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom. But Carrie Lam remains pretty much where she was in the popularity stakes, which is to say, deeply unpopular.

She has only herself to blame and very few people will shed tears for the CENO; they are far too busy scrambling around finding ways to survive this crisis with very little expectation of help from the government.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author