On COVID-19, mental health and human decency

October 18, 2021 08:18
Photo: Reuters

We’re in the midst of arguably one of the worst pandemics in our lifetimes.

Not only has COVID-19 left an indelible mark on global politics, international relations, and, indeed, our average lifespans – it has also transformed our mental states into subjects of a hellish 18 months (and counting). The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it substantial onus and burdens for an already battered international community. Not only has COVID-19 put an end to the many norms, values, and systems that we hold dear; exposed the fragility of public health infrastructures of many countries around the world – it has also deprived the world of access to basic self-care and welfare.

Considering Hong Kong’s relatively dry spell and bad run lately, it’s no surprise – though perhaps more of a product of artificial neglect and systemic failure – that we, too, have become one of the epicenters of the ongoing mental health crisis: one where productivity and basic human decency, frankly unrealisable public health objectives and sanity have come into conflict. And the outcomes of these clashes are Pyrrhicly clear – nobody wins, we’re all losers.

To be fair to our administration, it has done a reasonably comprehensive job – as compared with many of its rivals and counterparts, Singapore and Britain included – in keeping cases low. Yes, Hong Kong is indeed perhaps the place to be – especially throughout vast swathes of 2020. Yet there is much more to be done on the front of the mental health and wellbeing of tourists, travelers, and citizens in our city.

Nobody wins from the frankly unconscionable and dogmatically imposed quarantine orders. Yes – it is imperative that we take extraordinary care and due diligence to defend Hong Kong from the dangerous variants. No – it shouldn’t be the case that well-vaccinated and -protected travellers must endure three weeks of endless hell in hotels, only to be told that they must also worry over the plethora of issues ranging from the quarantine conditions to the possibility that they would be left hotel-less due to shifts and reshuffles to their travel arrangements. A recent British Airways flight had seen its passengers stranded in Manila after Typhoon Lionrock (aptly named?) took to the city – they were, in turn, informed that they must procure hotel rooms for 21 days of quarantine from the time they land. Now, this in and of itself may well be justified, but the hassle, stress, and turmoil posed as a result of these arrangements and rearrangements? These strike me as rather superfluous and unwarranted.

No one stands to gain from the extraordinarily stiff restrictions governing entry and exit in and out of Hong Kong. It was certainly the right move on the administration’s part to shut the borders way back at the beginning of last year – yet with the appropriate combination of vaccinations, masks, and mandatory contact tracing, Hong Kong can and ought to reopen more thoroughly, to foreign and mainland Chinese visitors (indeed, the latter are co-nationals to us – we’re in the same country, for crying out loud). The damages inflicted upon our mental health through the economic and social repercussions of sealed borders, could not be underestimated or overstated. It is pragmatically necessary that the government promptly addresses the fallout – especially amongst those from low or marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds, who have found themselves on the short end of the stick. Anxieties, paranoia, and stresses arising from prospective unemployment and potential evictions not only pose a significant burden for our public health system – but also an active cost to our city’s productivity.

No one – absolutely no one – should want to see Hong Kong slip further into a Greek-tragic, vicious cycle of grievance-fuelled politics. Yet I do fear that the likelihood of public anger and resentment brewing into something greater is by far more proximate than we think. The ability to access decent mental healthcare and support, as well as a stable and sustainable family/economic life, especially for this city’s youth and economically active populations, is vital in mollifying the already disgruntled public. Whilst the government may not be able to procure a panacea for the woes and worries of the city’s 7.5 million population, the least it could do is to refrain from compounding or adding to it.

Human decency is an eerily abstract term. There is a tendency amongst certain quarters to transform it into a lofty and far-fetched political ideal, a battering ram with which they agitate and contest, protest and bicker against the state. I’m of the more modest view that independent of political liberties or electoral freedoms, an arguably far more substantial and pressing need constitutes one of a decent quality of life. Mental health and wellbeing are vital, non-negotiable components of a decent life. So here’s to working towards that, despite, and arguably because of the ongoing pandemic that we must conquer and overcome.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review