Reopening a must: Vaccination is key-but not enough

November 22, 2021 09:12

News has emerged that Hong Kong officials have been meeting with their mainland Chinese counterparts in seeking to arrange for the reopening of “borders” between the mainland and Hong Kong. Long overdue – given the economic connectivity between the two, and, indeed, Hong Kong’s significant dependence upon its very own country.

The shut borders have paralysed economic activities and severely impaired the ability of our citizens to manage and run their businesses in the mainland – but also to engage in more “mundane” errands, such as seeing families and friends, separated by the callous, unyielding quarantine restrictions that apply to a vast majority of local denizens. Provided that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises, we should be able to reopen our borders to the mainland within the next three to four months.

Reopening Hong Kong’s borders to the world at large – at some point in the future – is equally a must. Indeed, I’d posit that the longer we wait, the likelier it is that we would, as reports have touted, lose our wherewithal and capacity to serve as a “world-leading” financial center. Already we’ve seen plenty of firms and businesses express the intention of relocating elsewhere, in light of the obscurantist and ossified quarantine regime that we have put up. In exchange for “0-COVID”, we have paid a hefty price – one arguably too hefty for the many residing in our city to foot. Hong Kong thrives off its connections and embeddedness within global trade and travel networks. Without tourists, foreign investors, or travelers, our city would indeed lose much of its competitive edge over its counterparts throughout the rest of China.

Now, of course, the million-dollar question would be: is it possible for us to open our borders to both the world at large, and our very own country, given the “0-COVID” strategy adopted by Beijing? The answer to this, surprisingly, is a yes. Provided that our population reaches a sufficiently high level of vaccinations, coupled with cautious social distancing and prudent, diligent track-and-tracing, it is indeed possible for Hong Kong to serve as a calibrated nexus connecting a semi-shut mainland with the rest of the world.

There are two operative prerequisites for this, however. Firstly, it must be the case that an overwhelming majority of Hong Kong citizens possesses immunity against COVID-19. Secondly, we need a more rigorous, efficient, and adaptive testing regime that accurately and swiftly traces transmission chains.

On the first, let’s be very clear – vaccination is not a bonus, is not an afterthought, and should not be a politicised issue. Vaccination is a must. Third jabs are a must. To stifle the prospects of our already-overloaded public health system going overboard and buckling under the pressure of significant caseloads, to nip the possibility of an uncontrollable outbreak storming our city, we need our population to be prepared for the onslaught of potentially infected cases coming into Hong Kong. This cannot be done, unless we have 90-95% of vaccinated adults – consider, for one, the implications that opening our borders would have for our immune-compromised individuals, who are unlikely to be able to “shelter” on their own, as their counterparts in the UK or the US, given the compact living spaces in which Hong Kongers live.

The current vaccination rates – having levelled off over recent weeks – are frankly far from optimal. We’re looking at 59.6% of the population having undertaken at least two jabs – that’s nearly 40% who have yet to be vaccinated. Setting aside concerns to do with relapse and vaccine efficacy, it is clear that we are lagging dangerously behind many other economies in the region. And we haven’t even gotten onto the third jab yet – which, as breakthrough infections and soaring rates in the UK reveal – is likely to be a necessity, as opposed to a top-up luxury. Vaccination is key to ensuring that our workforce is capable of withstanding the presence of the COVID-19 virus in the community: and this cannot be avoided. We cannot possibly remain shut off and closed off to the world for perpetuity (even though some may view this as the preferred course of events).

Vaccinations alone are not the panacea. Just look at Israel, for one, where despite the high levels of vaccinations, there have nevertheless been surges induced by the highly infectious Delta variant. As such, we also need a rigorous and expedient testing regime – one that enables citizens to responsively identify and self-diagnose, as well as equipping our administration with sufficient capital to track and trace infectious spreaders of the disease, in order to curb the spread of the virus. Zero-COVID may be infeasible, but that does not mean we oughtn’t try to keep the number of COVID-19 cases at least reasonably low.

All in all, if Hong Kong is serious about reopening to the world, it is high time that we put in our shift as citizens. It’s tempting to blame the government for everything – but blame and partisan rhetoric can solve no issues. Let’s get down to business, and let’s open our city up properly, once and for all – but only when we are ready; and only when doing so would not jeopardise our connections with the rest of our own country.

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Assistant Professor, HKU