COVID-19 mess: We need an exit strategy

January 25, 2022 10:08
Photo: Reuters

We need an exit strategy.

Several key propositions undergirding this statement – and, indeed, largely informed by recent events. The first, is the hyper-contagiousness of the Omicron (both B.1 and B.2 sub-variants) variant of the COVID-19 virus. Whether it be the mega-cluster in Kwai Chung, the allegedly-hamster-induced outbreak in Causeway Bay, or, indeed, the Kwun Tong cluster – one fact is clear, Omicron is here, and we are bearing in full force, collectively, its devastating ripple effects. COVID-19 is likely to spread further, and, in the absence of substantial dialing-up of draconian restrictive measures, eliminating COVID-19 in the short-term remains an apparent non-starter.

The second, is that our city’s international competitiveness is slipping – waning, even – as a result of its zero-tolerance policies and splendiferously rigid quarantine regime in relation to foreign visitors. Whether it be financial talents engaged in confidential, specific acquisition deals and due diligence, or venture capitalists seeking out a friendly territory for series-B/C fundraising, or, indeed, educators and academics who have been shut out of this “cosmopolitan” and “global” city, it’s apparent that the human and social costs of the quarantine measures have significantly impaired our capacity to attract and retain talents – whether it be from overseas, or from the mainland (which shares our draconian isolation and quarantine measures, yet nevertheless differs sharply in terms of both the market size and sophistication of e-communications technology).

The third, and plausibly most important constraint, is that reopening our borders to the rest of China remains a key prerogative for the thousands, if not near-million, of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese citizens who rely disproportionately upon cross-border commute and travel as a source of their income and occupational stability. Reopening the Mainland-Hong Kong border should have been a fait accompli – this question has since been rendered a non-starter in light of the escalating, incipient fifth wave of the pandemic in the city.

We need an exit strategy from this mess. And it’s easier said than done – to give credit where credit’s due, our administration and public health professionals have genuinely done a pretty decent job in ensuring that Hong Kong remains immunised and spared from the turmoil of the pandemic throughout 2020 and 2021. The tides have nevertheless turned – 0-COVID has proven to be more of a Sisyphean objective and Herculean effort than we had previously assumed. So what’s the way out?

Here’s my take. We must implement mandatory vaccinations – especially for populations that remain heavily under-immunised in the status quo. Whilst my previous takes have called for a combination of organic incentives and deterrents, I reckon we’re now well past the point where “choice” over vaccination ought to be tolerated with such laissez-faire permissiveness. Licentiousness cannot be the antidote to epochal crises – and the pandemic is one. To refuse to get jabbed, on grounds of unsubstantiated fears concerning alleged inefficacy and the ostensible side-effects of the vaccine, quite simply is not a reasonable choice. It may be reasonable for one to request exemption on medical grounds, or on grounds that one has particular allergies and vulnerabilities – this, however, cannot be conflated with the anti-science, anti-fact rhetoric permeating certain segments of local and international discourses concerning vaccines. Not only must we make vaccination (two jabs at least) a necessary prerequisite for access to public spaces, we must also introduce further measures to penalise individuals who refuse vaccination on ill-substantiated or poorly defined grounds. We’re far from reaching the level of vaccination that would render reopening possible.

Secondly, it’s high time that we established a culture of normalised testing – it shouldn’t the case that one must queue for hours (or at least an hour) in order to receive a test and diagnosis; nor should it be the case that large swathes of our citizenry remain ignorant over as to where and how they could get tested (indeed feasible and doable on their own, too). The administration must provide both the means and incentives for individuals to get regularly tested, as a means of identifying and nipping in the bud transmission chains in the community.

Objectively, our approach to quarantine, isolation, and contact-tracing is Machiavellian and clinical – yet lacks efficacy on a holistic level: this is because the substantial costs of testing positive drastically lower the likelihood and proclivity on the part of individuals to step forth to get tested. Why “risk” it, when one could potentially “slip by” under the radar – or so folks think; yet if everyone thinks as such, we’d never reach the necessary critical point/threshold needed for us to stamp out routes of communal and/or nosocomial transmission of the virus.

Finally, Hong Kong must reopen to not just mainland China, but also the world at large. Now, what’s often touted in rejoinder to this is the fact that there exists a strict dichotomy, bound by unspoken rules of mutual exclusivity – it’s either, or. Either Hong Kong opens up to mainland China, or it opens up to the world; it can’t be both, given China’s fixation over reaching zero-COVID, and the seeming contentment of most countries at large to “live with COVID”. Yet this gulf is not static – it is dynamic: through carefully selecting countries with whom vaccine bubbles/tunnels could be formed, as well as mandating diligent and comprehensive tracking devices on Hong Kong citizens who travel to the mainland, Hong Kong could offer an exemplar of a “Hybrid Approach” to COVID-19, one with a limited level of openness to co-existence with the virus, accompanied with high levels of vaccination and contact-tracing. All of this, of course, is driven by the undergirding principle that “Dynamic Zero-COVID” remains a means – and not an end: the ultimate goal is facilitate complete reopening given adequate vaccination rates in the local community.

Exist strategy – that’s what we need. Could we get it?

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Assistant Professor, HKU