Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

July 13, 2020 09:13
Photo: HK Govt

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of coronavirus cases reported in Hong Kong. Schools have once again been shut, whilst residents of housing estates and tenants of frequented shops have turned to panicking. After all, who’s to say that they, too, wouldn’t be diagnosed suddenly with COVID-19, and be stricken by a disease that has taken the world by storm, and claimed over 12 million infections and nearly 600 thousand lives?

Yet, should we be surprised? Should we be surprised by the third wave?

Or the fact that there exist untraceable cases whose origins of infection and routes of transmission remain unclear?

Or the fact that packed, overly compact environs with minimal hygienic and sanitary upkeep could easily evolve into hotbeds for a deeply contagious disease?

Hong Kong has been touted as one of the most responsive and prepared cities for the raging epidemic. Even notwithstanding the train-wreck that is the public relations department of the administration, there is something rather impressive about its public health department, the professional doctors and nurses working tirelessly under the Hospital Authority (and who have come under rather bizarre, acrimonious flack for their reasonable complaints about resource shortage) – perhaps best epitomised by Dr. Cheung Chuk-Kwun’s near-daily briefings on the evolving situation – and the government’s ability to pool and distribute masks to its citizens.

It’s easy to fault the government for the persisting epidemic. Indeed, it’s politically convenient and ingratiating, to ridicule an administration that has already come short in many other areas. More importantly, faulting the government enables us to shirk responsibility, to walk away with our hands “cleaned” (pun intended), from the collective mess that we have engendered. There would also be something blatantly disingenuous about a one-sided account, that ignores the blatant failures of the government in procuring masks and medical supplies in mid-January for the Hospital Authority (run independently from the Health Department), or the tardy responses concerning resumption and suspension of classes, and – above all – its much-needed relief measures for the downtrodden during the economic downturn.

Yet doing so leaves out, conveniently yet detrimentally, the “Us” – it strips away our agency, as individual citizens, just as it diminishes our seeming responsibility. It suggests that as well-informed citizens with the capacity to have acted otherwise, that there was nothing we could have done; nothing we could have borne in mind as we went about our business.

Let’s face it. COVID-19 is here to stay. And the ability on our part to contain it is deeply contingent upon everyone’s joint participation and cooperation. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

First, shop owners and restauranteurs must ensure that they comply with the stipulated guidelines. There has been limited – albeit alarming – evidence to suggest that this new wave was at least partially exacerbated by a cluster centering a neighbourhood diner. It’s not the diner’s fault that their environs are so cramped, with limited space and a high customer turnover. Yet it may well be the collective responsibility of the tenant, the proprietor, and local Health Inspectors to ensure that government guidelines are adhered strictly to. It also behooves tenants to call out violations – should they recognise the flagrant defiance of social distancing and ventilation best practices. The government, unfortunately, cannot be charged with the responsibility of monitoring its citizens 24/7. When it comes to neighbourhood diners, the entire neighbourhood must be involved. If literacy and awareness of protocol are an issue, the District Councillors must bear the plausibly heavy burden of educating and engaging their community – on top of the duties they are currently expected to discharge. It may be tempting, even indirectly necessary given the persisting hardships, for shop owners to let slip and cut corners. Yet we simply cannot under-estimate the extensive economic damage, for both the shop and the neighbourhood, that such acts of convenience could induce. Don’t let profiteering get the better of upholding public safety and security.

Next, there is a fine line between socialisation permissible under sensible social distancing protocol, and irresponsible fraternisation that facilitates “Super-spreader Events”. It would be simplistic and naïve to assume that all in-person communication and meet-ups can be replaced by digital platforms. Moreover, given that not everyone is a medical expert in the room here, we cannot always fault those who opt to meet up – particularly those who have let their guards down given the consistently low numbers in cases over the past two months.

Yet as the number of cases rises yet again, it behooves all of us (myself included!) to refrain from physical meetings as much as possible. Replace your dinners and lunches with Zoom gatherings; swap out or cancel appointments that are non-essential. It may not be your life that is at stake, but it could be someone else’s life at risk. It only takes a single caretaker to infect an entire elderly home.

We’ve seen scenes of body bags piling up outside care homes in Madrid; or caretakers wearing make-shift protection equipment in London; or cold cadavers tucked away in their shoddy blankets, awaiting collection in New York.

Let’s not have that happen here.

Above all, there is nothing inevitable or inherent about the precarity of Hong Kong’s working class’s lives. The cleaners picking up rubbish on the streets, workers serving customers in packed congee shops, hospital assistants cleaning up after the bedridden – these are individuals who receive meagre salaries, and yet bear disproportionate risks of exposure. A responsible civil society – irrespective of what the government does – must get its act together. It falls upon us to care, collectively, for the carers – for otherwise, there’d be no one to care for us eventually.

As John Donne aptly puts it in For Whom the Bell Tolls:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

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Assistant Professor, HKU