Juggling through the pandemic

July 22, 2020 08:29
Many of necessary actions to shut down the pandemic also shut down economic activity, particularly in sectors like tourism, food and hospitality, and aviation. Photo: Bloomberg

Juggling looks effortless, but as anyone who’s tried it knows, it’s not. Months, even years of practice go into perfecting the balance and coordination skills that keep multiple balls flying confidently from hand to hand and through the air.

Six months into the global pandemic, it often seems like we are trying to learn the art of juggling (sometimes while on a bicycle and blindfolded!). Governments around the world are struggling to find equilibrium between multiple factors: public health, the economy, community morale and well-being. All are intertwined and interdependent.

Typically, a government’s response to a pandemic is to deal with the public health emergency immediately. There are many measures that can be implemented, including doubling down on quarantines, restricting gatherings and movement, border controls and hygiene regulations, mass testing and contact tracing. But many of these necessary actions to shut down the pandemic also shut down economic activity, particularly in sectors like tourism, food and hospitality, and aviation.

Most healthy economies can survive a short term shutdown. But you can’t shut down forever. At a certain point, businesses and citizens begin to chafe under strict lockdown regimens. No one wants to get sick, but no one wants to lose a job or a business either. This is the point at which governments use the tools of economic stimulus, to counteract the negative effect of lockdowns, and make it less painful for citizens and businesses to comply with public health restrictions for what may be a long and difficult time.

There’s no single playbook yet to help decision-makers judge when, where, how—and how much—to intervene. But as the epidemic continues, more management tools and theories are appearing. A recent paper by the American consultancy McKinsey and Company defines four stages of the pandemic and outlines a coordinated program of steps that governments can take at each stage to open, or close, various economic sectors as public health conditions improve.

In Hong Kong, we have been influenced by the work done by the COVID-19 response team at Imperial College, London, who have come up with the “suppress and lift” concept. This involves slowing the virus spread by implementing public health measures that are alternately relaxed and tightened, depending on fluctuations in the actual conditions. This method is flexible, and helps avoid prolonged economic lockdowns. And by allowing for breaks in social restrictions it also recognizes that maintaining public morale is a crucial component of public health.

So far, it’s too soon to tell which approaches work best. However, we’ve seen two distinct trends emerging. In the US, response has varied depending on states, but overall there seems to be greater emphasis on economic recovery. After an initial round of lockdowns in various US states, many local governments rushed to return to business as usual and re-open shops, services and schools. The push to return to “normal” has not come without a price: the US currently has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world.

In Asia, the trend has been to prioritize public health over the economy. Here in Hong Kong, as in many other Asian countries, we have zero tolerance for COVID-19 infection--test positive, and you are sent straight to hospital. Most countries in Asia have imposed stringent border controls alongside mandatory 14 day quarantines. Meanwhile, citizens have been asked to contribute to the effort by wearing masks in public, social distancing and hand-washing, and staying at home whenever possible. (This is no small sacrifice in a city like Hong Kong, where a family home is often only 300-400 square feet.)

A recent survey by the C|T Group reveals that a majority of Hong Kong people agree with the public health first approach taken by governments here and across Asia. More than half of the respondents questioned said they think that society’s welfare is more important than business economic growth right now. Remarkably, Hong Kong’s people say they’re not willing to sacrifice public health for jobs at a moment when the current unemployment rate is the highest in more than a decade.

Hong Kong government’s comprehensive basket of pandemic stimulus measures certainly has helped ease economic strain, allowing people to focus on health more than wealth. And there’s also history and experience to support popular confidence in Hong Kong’s economy: we’ve taken hits before, after SARS, and after the global economic crisis of 2009, and we’ve bounced back.

But my guess is that Hong Kong people understand that when it comes to this pandemic, our cooperative, caring society is our greatest strength. Even as we confront an unexpected third wave of infection, our willingness to endure discomfort and inconvenience for the good of the whole community is our secret weapon. Around the world, as governments, businesses and citizens struggle to master the juggling technique of controlling the virus, maintaining economic activity, and helping communities get through stressful times with resilience and spirit, I hope that our Hong Kong experience can help.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress