The least we could have

December 18, 2020 08:58
Photo: RTHK

It hasn’t been the best of years for Hong Kong. We’ve seen, and had, better.

That’s putting it mildly.

Let’s put it this way. Let’s put it more bluntly.

Hong Kong is confronted by – in many ways – a multi-dimensional crisis today. A crisis over its identity; a crisis over conflicting value systems, morphed out of power structures and cultures, rooted in schisms that have driven this city apart as politicking and vested interests have rendered reconciliation nigh-impossible; a crisis propelled by ossified governance, amplified by socioeconomic divisions and inequalities that threaten to drag us through the mud – and then some.

The least we could have, you’d think, is a modicum of wellbeing – health. Not dying from COVID-19. Not being stranded at home for the fourth week on a row. Not being compelled to eat surreptitiously on the streets, only to put a facemask on and scurry off back to work as soon as lunch hours are over. It’s illegal to eschew mask-wearing in public spaces – and rightly so, though instructions are less than clear when it comes to eating and drinking; or rather, given the roster of exempting conditions and the piling-on of ‘extenuating circumstances’, it remains deeply unclear if the enforcement of the mask-wearing ordinance in fact works.

We don’t know when all this will end. Worse yet, we don’t know if we have it – if our neighbours have it, if our bosses have it, if the folks who are running our city have it, or, indeed, if our family and friends have it. ‘Tis no different from a game of Werewolves, with an ever-expanding number of infected wolves waiting to bite, and a dwindling number of village doctors left to prescribe advice to an increasingly befuddled public. The public doesn’t trust the experts, the experts doesn’t trust the government, and the government certainly has left very little room for both imagination and trust alike from the vast majority in the city.

There’s a natural, default tendency to blame Beijing for this – after all, blaming Beijing is a natural ingredient of any and all inflammatory rhetoric in the city: step one, shirk responsibility; step two, make this about Hong Kong-Beijing relations; step three, profit from clicks and likes and shares! Voila! Yet life isn’t as simple as that – right across the border we’ve seen a sharp decrease and swift containment of a pandemic that admittedly faced botched handling and inept cover-up in its early days, and yet has largely been decimated thanks to rigorous self-discipline and an immense, sprawling surveillance apparatus that has left little room for privacy and infection alike. We may not like the way things work in the North, but they have at least managed to stamp out a virus that we, nearly a year into the crisis, are struggling to contain.

80+ cases every day. At times we’re hitting the hundreds. Are these appalling numbers? We’ve seen worse – Serbia has a comparable population to Hong Kong’s, and they’re seeing daily cases in the thousands. Germany and South Korea are experiencing unprecedented surges. Japan is reconsidering its options. The UK is hit with a new strain. Hong Kong’s plight, then, seems to be the norm, as opposed to the exception. Name me a country or region that has fared well under the winter surge – indeed, Scotland isn’t doing so well, and California is bathing in a lockdown that has largely paralysed any and all economic activities. So perhaps we ought to be ‘grateful’ that our government has managed to keep numbers largely to a minimum?

As with most things in Hong Kong politics – such a statement is by all means too soon, too simple, definitely naïve. Testing rates remain ludicrously low for a cosmopolitan city, with voluntary and selectively mandated testing prioritised as the modus operandi in the city’s response to the crisis. What of groups that are ‘invisible’, such as the infamous group of dancers (nothing against dancing, but there’s much that could be said about mask-less dancing), or the developing clusters in Kowloon Bay? What of transmission chains that are ‘too big to happen’ – where even one missed transmission node (superspreader?) could leave dozens, if not hundreds, on the path to destruction? From leading pro-Establishment pundits to the elderly alike, the virus takes no prisoners – if we can’t get mandatory testing done right, the least we could have, is focused and expedient selective testing.

And then there’s the vaccine. The administration seems to believe that (or, rather, have us believe that) folks are sceptical towards the vaccine(s) because of political factors. Well, Duh – the packaging and branding of vaccines are an innately political question. Indeed, that we aren’t having leading medical experts such as Gabriel Leung or Yuen Kwok-yung, but the HKSAR administration, distribute the vaccines – is fully testament to that fact. How the public perceives the vaccines remains a political question – it’s always been that way. Who gets the vaccine first? Can we choose our vaccines? Will there be transparency and accountability mechanisms if things go awry? These are questions that the government must answer; fears that the administration must assuage, and basic due diligence 101 that those in power ought to be held to account over. If the public can’t even trust science, what makes one think they’d be able to trust the government at large?

Finally, on social distancing and mask-wearing protocol. Public health consciousness remains paltry and sparse amongst circles where government buy-in is at a new low – but also amongst demographics who rarely frequent or consume ‘nascent technologies’. For all the talk of connecting with the crowd, Tamar has performed remarkably shoddily when it comes to informing the elderly or unruly youths of the importance of public health precautions.

We cannot afford to have a fifth wave: indeed, we’ve yet to emerge from the fourth. Shops are closing left, right, and center; the economy is tanking, and businesses are bearing the fullest brunt of an incoherent, inchoate governmental response. Other governments are apparently doing worse, but – for all the talk we perform concerning our city’s being a world-class city – the least we could do is for our government to start behaving like they are governing one.

Talk is cheap – I do not envy those who serve in public service, whether it be as political appointees or in the civil service. Yet constructive criticism must also be said – elsewise, we may as well self-identify as Pro-Establishment pundits, and champion the cause of echoing each and every (hollow) statement the powers that be have decided to put out for the day. Hong Kong does deserve the better; the least we could have is a 2021 that is COVID-free.

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Assistant Professor, HKU