On quarantine, pandemic controls and common sense

January 05, 2022 09:18
Photo: Reuters

We all saw it coming – the emergence of communal transmission of the highly contagious omicron variant. For a vast majority of the past two years, Hong Kong has remained – through its rigorous, at times excessive, perhaps, stringent quarantine regime – immune from the deleterious, crippling effects of COVID-19. But as with most things in life, nothing gold can stay. And for liberty, the price is eternal vigilance.

Several facts are worth noting – facts that should not be taken as fixed and unchanging, but should be taken as holding as certainly true for the foreseeable future.

The first, is that China is unlikely to abandon its Zero COVID-19 policy any time soon. The contagiousness of Omicron and other variants, the potential devastation COVID-19 could wreak in the country, the looming political conferences and plenary meetings of the year, as well as the prospective repercussions of perceived inability to contain the pandemic, are all excessively high costs that neither the Chinese people nor Beijing is willing to bear. More substantially, the Zero COVID-19 strategy has worked out largely fine for the vast majority of the country’s 1.4 billion people – a shift towards autarkic, self-sustaining economic operations has vastly offset the economic harms that have befallen other smaller economies under comparable (or less stringent) lockdown measures and border controls.

The second, is that Hong Kong remains overarchingly dependent upon its own country for economic activities and personnel in/out-flow. It is certainly true that, as the most international Chinese city (for now), Hong Kong benefits far more from remaining connected with the international community at large via travel and interpersonal exchanges, than its counterparts in the mainland – yet cross-border travel and trade of goods and services comprise so critical a pillar of Hong Kong’s economy, that to sweep it under the carpet, and to hope that Hong Kong could stomach the downturn and deleterious effects posed by its alienation from its own country, is quite simply untenable. We need the mainland China-Hong Kong border to reopen, in order to rejuvenate our stagnating economy.

The third – and arguably most pivotal fact of all – is that vaccination uptake remains far too sluggish; we need more folks to be vaccinated, it’s simple as that. Indeed, we need folks to take up boosters – for tentative estimates have it that boosters are necessary and required for individuals to develop sufficient resilience (and partial immunity) against the virus. About 2/3 of Hong Kong’s population have received their second jabs; with respect to boosters, the proportion is even lower. With the clustered and crammed living conditions afflicting many in our city, vaccination remains our only genuine hope against a virus as destructive as the one we’re confronting.

The final, and plausibly least discussed facts, is that many amongst the international community have been increasingly wary of and fed up with the draconian quarantine restrictions that befall them, as they arrive at our city. The trouble with this is two-fold: firstly, given the political upheaval and socioeconomic divides that have pestered our city for long, we need international capital as a means of keeping our economic wheels spinning; secondly, whilst it is not the case that all expats are leaving Hong Kong en masse (to say so would be a hyperbole), given the gargantuan hassle posed by such restrictions, it is only understandable that our attractiveness to the top crop of international labour has dwindled substantially.

Given these four propositions, then, it suffices to say that we’re in a bit of a tight spot – between a hard place and a rock. On one hand, reopening to the world seems to be an attractive proposal: one that would be critical in reviving our economic fortunes, in preserving Hong Kong’s status as a global, international city, and in ensuring that we have some sort of a reasonable exit strategy when it comes to resuming normal operations and business as usual. On the other hand, much of this would render reopening to our very own country – and the North – nigh-impossible. A tradeoff is thus inevitable, given political constraints and the sociological realities of the pandemic. Whilst I have no concrete answers and proposals, here’s a somewhat radical thought – might it be possible for partial reopening to the world to occur alongside a full reopening to our own country, but where such partial reopening – in lieu of unenforced or ill-enforced “exemptions” for pilots and such – would involve rigorous contact-tracing and -limitation, with the costs of violating such restrictions being hefty fines or sanctions?

Alternatively, could another way out be sought through implementing a code-based system – similar to the cross-border “health code” – not be installed in Hong Kong, where foreign visitors could be granted access to particular sites or venues in town (e.g. a limited number of select hotels, convention centers, and meeting venues), without travel restrictions; and where entry into and exit from these regions are heavily monitored by the administration? I do not know – these are but the musings of a layperson who is hoping that more clarity and answers, on the path forward, could be provided in time. As other economies around the world reopen, it should, in theory, be a matter of time before we do. Yet the question is – when? How? And, above all, at what costs?

Happy new year. And with the new year, may it give us the strength and resilience to overcome, to conquer, and to persist – despite the pernicious circumstances in which we have found ourselves.

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Assistant Professor, HKU