Public, businesses demand to end “Zero-Covid” policy

February 24, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Demands are rising among the public and business community in Hong Kong for an end to the “Zero-Covid” policy that has devastated the economy and cut off the city from the mainland and the rest of the world for two years.

A study conducted in January by the Democratic Party found that 65 per cent of the 603 respondents said that the city should prepare a strategy to live with the virus, compared to 42 per cent in November.

Danny Lau, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, said that he believed most government officials knew it was impossible to maintain Covid Zero. “But they cannot help because they have to follow China’s policy. Hong Kong is becoming more and more like a ghost city.”

After months of lobbying the government to change policy, foreign businesses are now openly leaving the city.

The latest example is Mark Fitzpatrick, the new interim chief executive of Prudential from the end of March. He originally planned to take up the post here but said he could be forced to do it elsewhere because of the quarantine restrictions.

“I can absolutely see the CEO being based short term outside of Hong Kong until it is easier to actually be able to run a regional business from there,” he said. The company’s most important markets are Hong Kong and China and, after a reorganisation, the new CEO is to be based in Asia.

Mandarin Oriental and French spirits maker Pernod Ricard both said they would temporarily relocate executives away from Hong Kong. Bank of America is reviewing what roles to move from here to Singapore.

Those who argue for a more flexible policy say that living standards, quality of health care and public expectations are different here to those in the mainland.

“There is a population of 1.4 billion over a vast area, a single country where people have the freedom to travel,” said David Wong, a business consultant. “Hong Kong has a population of only seven million and well defined borders. China’s companies can live off its giant domestic market. But Hong Kong depends on foreign businesses, exports and travel.

“Our government has no will of its own. It follows the orders of the central government and dare not oppose them, even though they may not be suitable for Hong Kong,” he said.

He and others say that Hong Kong should follow the model of Singapore. It implements strict controls within the city.

What makes it so attractive to foreign companies is that it allows the entry of fully vaccinated short-term foreign travellers from more than 20 countries, including Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, South Korea, and India.

Japan has just announced that, as from March 1, 5,000 people will be allowed to enter each day, up from 3,500 now. They include Japanese citizens and foreign residents. In addition, Mongolia has reopened its borders to fully vaccinated international travellers.

This week fully vaccinated travellers will be allowed to enter Australia for the first time since early 2020. The announcement of this last month led to a surge in bookings. The country’s large tourist industry is jubilant.

But the intervention of President Xi Jinping last week makes any change in policy here even less likely. He told the Hong Kong government “to stabilise and control the coronavirus situation as soon as possible. The city must take all necessary measures to contain the outbreak. It is a mission that overrides everything.”

He sent specialists from Guangdong to assist the Hong Kong government, which is now considering mass testing and lockdowns, measures widely used in the mainland during the last two years.

“I am more frightened by quarantine than the virus,” said Wong Lam, a university student. “I have had two vaccinations and feel well protected. Those who contract the Omicron virus usually do not suffer severe symptoms. They stay at home for seven or eight days and recover.

“What complicates the situation is widespread mistrust of the government because of what has happened over the last three years. Many people have refused to be vaccinated as a form of protest. It is foolish, but sincere. They have no confidence in the policies taken by the government and suspect the motives of those sent from the mainland. This will make mass testing and lockdowns more difficult,” he said.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.