A multi-pronged approach in COVID-19 efforts is needed

August 23, 2021 06:00
Photo: RTHK

The administration recently tightened entry rules for arrivals from 16 countries swept up in the resurgence of COVID-19, extending the length of the mandatory quarantine requirements to 21 days. Many of these states were combating a conspicuous spike in cases, induced by – amongst other reasons – the delta variant and vaccine hesitancy. Whilst some have taken to social media to lament the draconian measures adopted by the administration, others have noted that such measures are by no means tenable or sufficient in combating the pandemic – we need more than just isolation and quarantine, as combative measures and remedies in face of the pandemic.

Elsewhere, a debate has erupted over the extent to which states should seek to “clear” the number of COVID-19 cases – whilst some posit that it is imperative for administrations to whittle the number of cases down to single digits, or 0, others (including many medical and public health experts in the West) have noted that such aspirations are, frankly, unrealistic and impractical.

To frame the debate as one between “open up and live with the virus” and “eliminate the virus at any and all costs” is tempting – though also disingenuous. The government needs a multi-prong approach to the pandemic; one that ensures that effective reopening-up can be swiftly and expediently enacted, without compromising our overarching push for reducing the volume and spread of diseases. The dual objectives of opening-up and curbing the spread of the virus need not be mutually exclusive. Yet what is thus required here, is a flexible and dynamic combination of approaches – some of which we shall explore here.

Firstly, testing must be made more readily and widely available. A critical component of the ongoing COVID-19 efforts – that is nevertheless often underestimated and under-explored – is the testing programme. Economic reopening and resumption of normal commercial activities cannot occur safely, unless individuals can readily access tests (in the form of privately purchasable kits, mass testing stations, and alternatives). This is because testing allows for the identification of infectious carriers, but also enables the preemptive isolation of asymptomatic and non-contagious cases – so long as such isolation and identification processes are conducted swiftly, reopening without a substantial spike in cases is indeed possible. Tests should – in theory and practice – be more affordable, accessible, and easily transferrable than vaccines. There should be no reason for which individuals are denied of access to the opportunity to gauge if they are indeed carriers of the pathogen. Mandatory testing may, unfortunately, be neither politically feasible nor logistically desirable; yet quasi-universal testing, for those who opt and want to get tested, should be a given in an economy as advanced as Hong Kong.

Secondly, the government must do more to nudge and encourage individuals to vaccinate. The negative, blame-driven reprobation of non-vaxxers does very little, aside from alienating and driving away the very folks the administration needs to convince, in order to successfully boost the vaccination and immunity rates in the wider community. More transparency and accountability, alongside openness to wrestle with the woes and worries of the public, are necessary, in order to boost public confidence and trust in the system. More targeted vaccination campaigns – in universities, schools, and other institutions where vaccination uptake is sluggish – are imperative, yet should be carried out under coordinated collaboration between state and private sector. Merely offering perks and incentives – e.g. lottery – alone would not cut it.

Finally, it is high time that the government reflected upon whether eliminating all cases of COVID-19 is in fact necessary, and – to the extent it is – how this prerogative can be better communicated and pitched to the public at large. Vaccination uptake is sluggish; a vast majority of Hong Kongers are not immune to COVID-19. If the government truly wants to keep COVID-19 cases to an absolute minimum, it must be cognizant of the hefty economic price it, and all of us, must pay for this ideological fixation.

Suppose we grant that eliminating all cases is a valid preoccupation – even then, as it stands, the vast majority of the public remain skeptical of this proposition, that we must keep COVID-19 cases to single digits. It remains deeply unclear – to laypersons and those whose work depends heavily upon relatively unfettered travel – why “0 COVID” is the end goal. If the administration is bent on accomplishing this objective, it must empathise with the frustrations of the public, and make a concerted pitch that explains both the necessity and feasibility of “0 COVID”. Disparaging, mocking, patronising comments will not, and should not be the primary modus operandi of any sensible, responsible government.

We need a multi-pronged approach to tackling COVID. The pandemic is – for the foreseeable future – here to stay. This does not, and should not mean, that we must thereby give up on living life as normal. Hong Kong has thankfully weathered the storm (thus far) relatively well, but to reopen and rejuvenate our economy, it’ll take more just half-hearted vaccination campaigns. Testing and clear, open public communications are equally, if not more, important.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review