What’s wrong with HK’s “partial lockdown” strategy?

August 13, 2020 08:31
Scenes of old people and grassroots gobbling up their takeaway lunchboxes in the street further jeopardised the so-called “Silent Majority”’s support for the flailing government.Photo: RTHK

During the first wave of COVID-19 global outbreak, Hong Kong clearly excelled most of its competitive rivals, including Singapore, in controlling the epidemic. As one of the more successful textbook cases of efficacious containment, Hong Kong benefited greatly from the prominent self-discipline of its local community, and its highly proactive civil society’s ability to scout for and secure supply chains of surgical masks.

Yet the government was caught largely off-guard when struck by the “third wave” of mass local infections two weeks ago. Whilst the cabinet – led by the politically battered Carrie Lam – has promptly and dutifully identified the problem, opting to issue an edict that minimised face-to-face contact between citizens through a roster of measures, the government at large simply lacked the wherewithal to mollify the antagonised public. This was unsurprising, given that Hong Kong is currently caught between a rock and a hard place in the New Cold War, and embroiled in political turmoil that frankly leaves little appetite for sound reflections concerning public health. The botched communication strategy of senior bureaucrats indubitably placed a heavy toll on the public optics of Carrie’s otherwise acceptable response to the “third wave”.

The troubling lack of consumer-oriented thinking in policymaking

The government’s most prominent responsive measures, e.g. the whole-day ban on in-restaurant dining and the mandating of outdoor mask-wearing, attracted heavy criticisms from even sectors within the society that had been conventionally its supporters. Perhaps this should come as no surprise – but it is indeed amusing to see some of the usually most ardent pro-government advocates spearhead the public campaign against the government’s measures.

The whole-day ban on in-restaurant dining was intended to be a decisive and expedient measure that would prevent in-restaurant infection clusters from arising. Yet given the limited time and space of certain households and individuals, eating out is a daily necessity for many, particularly those who cannot afford to cook or hire a domestic helper to facilitate cooking. Scenes of old people and grassroots gobbling up their takeaway lunchboxes in the street certainly further jeopardised the so-called “Silent Majority”’s support for the flailing government. Fortunately for the administration, they had enough sense to eventually revoke the ban, upon witnessing the extensive backlash towards the policy.

Compulsory outdoor mask-wearing also attracted heavy criticism. It was seen as inconsiderate, perhaps best highlighted by the consequent, bizarre de facto ban on smoking – much to the chagrin of smokers and cigarette vendors, alike. Look, smoking isn’t a matter of right, but is certainly a habit that is hard to quit. To compel regular smokers to “quit smoking” merely one week after announcing a record-breaking unemployment surge (6.2% in Q2 2020, highest in the past 15 years) as an unintended side consequence of the policy is frankly absurd. If the technocrats genuinely are concerned about smokers’ health during economically difficult times, they should consider adopting alternatives, such as legalising science-based “modified risk products” (as recently authorised by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drugs Administration).

The technocrats in Tamar had obviously been convinced that a complete lockdown was plausibly necessary, but given the high densities of the city and the likely rebuking such measures would have received from the private sector, they decided to “tactfully” settle for the compromise. After all, lockdown would make little sense in a city where many don’t even have independent rooms at home for quarantine, not to mention the space and leisure to cook, eat and smoke at home - leaving the government with no choice but to concede.

Yet such botched compromise measures are indicative of a more structural problem underpinning Hong Kong’s governance today. The Hong Kong government is ill-equipped in its capacity to think from the citizen’s points of view – this is an issue that afflicts not only its public health policies, but also its economic strategy at large.

The key to post-pandemic recovery success lies with revitalizing consumption

The controversies surrounding the new lockdown measures, i.e. edicts that irritated daytime restaurant-goers and outdoor smokers as discussed, fundamentally are rooted in the lack of design thinking in the government’s governance paradigm. The government’s viral control policies, albeit quick-responding and devised out of goodwill, exposes its oblivion towards local consumer behaviour patterns – for all the powerful administrative talents in Tamar, few have come to recognise and act upon the core tenets of consumer nature.

The key factor in revitalizing a post-pandemic economy rests with the extent to which a government can encourage people to spend more for pleasure. As life expectancy continually increases, it is apparent that the average consumer demand per capita is on decline – after all, the elderly spend less than the young. Central Banks across the world are turning desperately to Quantitative Easing and interest rate slashing in order to boost consumption. The logic is simple—the world does not lack money, but consumption. The former is plentiful, the latter’s absence is pitiful. It’s likely that post-pandemic anticyclical economic policies will continually shift from steering “investment” to promoting “consumption”. Looking beyond the immediate crisis, the disease’s global devastation implies that the much thirst-for post-pandemic recovery must be developed from at least a good understanding of how people consume for pleasure, as Taiwan is already doing with its Triple Stimulus Vouchers.

To conclude, as can be seen from its third-wave pandemic management, the Hong Kong government has been able to act swiftly, but the means by which it does so exposes an important weakness: its lack of comprehension and sensitivity to the management and stimulation of consumption activities, which casts significant doubts over whether Hong Kong can maintain the lead in the (economic) recovery phase once a vaccine for COVID-19 – if ever – is developed


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EJI contributor