Towards a more reasonable, effective quarantine policy

September 17, 2021 10:02
Image: Hong Kong government

Much of this has been litigated and opined on to the point of death – but I’ll say it again: Hong Kong’s quarantine policy is ill-equipped for the rapidly shifting circumstances and evolving conditions in association with the pandemic.

Whilst – to give credit where credit is due – the watertight, rigorous, and impenetrable (almost) defenses of the quarantine measures have been pivotal in preventing major outbreaks in Hong Kong (till this very day, that is), the other side of the coin is equally apparent: in refusing to open up; in embracing an arcane and often obtuse set of bureaucratic procedures and red-tape, we risk falling behind our rivals in the ongoing campaign to re-open economies and borders.

To be very clear, some limitations on freedom of movement and travel are certainly in order – especially at a time when unknown, obscure variants are rapidly developing and emerging. The Delta, Mu, or (the now-superseded) Alpha variants are all highly concerning manifestations of COVID-19 that behoove and call for us to exercise both due diligence and caution in our approach to public health policies. Yet this is, in equal parts, by no means an excuse for a quarantine regime that suffers from three critical problems.

The first, constitutes the conditions to which those under quarantine are subjected. Yes, Hong Kong hotels are by no means abysmal by an absolute standard – yet as compared with its counterparts and competitors across Australasia (e.g. Singapore, Sydney, and even Shanghai), the dilapidated state of rooms; the arcane and rigid rules governing what one can do within said rooms (a friend of mine had an acquaintance who stepped outside their room for 20 seconds – to retrieve a misplaced room service tray; they were subsequently reprimanded and sent to the Peony Bay quarantine facilities for ostensibly violating government protocol); the frankly ludicrous constrictions imposed upon tenants (locked windows), and the horrendous facilities – or lack thereof – these are all blatantly obvious problems, and problems that can be resolved through fixes, if only those in charge would be a tad more cognizant of how those on the other end of the stick would feel. Ameliorating these problems would require resources – yes – but such resources should be spared, as a critical means of preserving our status as a world-class city.

The second concerns room availability and rescheduling. That flights are cancelled in response to potential surges and upticks in cases – that is certainly understandable. Indeed, the administration should be lauded, on that front, for their responsiveness and… flexibility. Yet it is frankly ludicrous that there exist no contingency plans, for instances in which there are insufficient hotel rooms to meet the compressed demand. Here, both government and private sector actors alike ought to step in, in coordinating and liaising across interest groups and cleavages, in providing contingency options that are of sufficient standards – as opposed to leaving travelers stranded and kept in the dark. Some acquaintances of mine have openly expressed reservations about travelling to Hong Kong – not due to the political turmoil and social unrest; not due to the legal and institutional transformations that have taken the city over the past two years, but because of the absurd volume of uncertainty and unpredictability in association with their travel and residency plans.

Last but not least, there needs to be clearer, more effective, and more ends-driven communication. The status quo of government comms is – to put it bluntly – very much lacking in its ability to reassure and assuage the worries of the public. Massaging public sentiments may well be too much of an ask – but the least the administration could do is to answer public queries and questions in a manner that is non-condescending and empathetic. The onus to lead falls upon our officials – indeed, those who are supposedly and supposed to be held to account for their actions, speech, and stances. It is incredible – and not in a good way – that residents and non-residents alike in Hong Kong would take to online forums and Facebook groups as a platform through which they could uncover information pertaining to quarantine, as opposed to turning to, you know, official sources of information. And one can’t fault them either – the government web-page on the types of restaurant/quarantine zones is as lucid and informative as a complex Da Vinci scribble: nigh-impossible to parse. We need clearer delineation of bottomlines, upshots, and streamlined complaints and feedback channels. Only then, could we address and wrestle effectively with the challenges brought about by the capricious times we inhabit.

I do not envy those in positions of power – indeed, they are, I’m sure, subject to plenty a constraint and logistical challenge that only those within the system would understand. I am sympathetic, too, towards the view that it is much easier to criticise than to fix problems. Yet the mantle of repairing, of tackling these problems, must and ought to rest predominantly with our administration and politicians – and by that, yes, I am indeed referring to the plethora of Pro-Establishment legislators that we have been… blessed with, as a collective.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review