It's high time to end Hong Kong’s quarantine inanities

July 15, 2022 10:38
Arrivals hall of Hong Kong International Airport (Photo: Reuters)

For the love of Hong Kong, for the love of the rest of the country, it is high time that we put an end, once and for all, the quarantine inanities that are effectively killing – if they haven’t already – our international competitiveness, vitality as a city, and openness that serves as an integral component of Beijing’s vision for China to globalise and internalise. For the love of Jove, we must and can do better than accept Hong Kong’s fate as an ensnared, entrapped, and inward-looking hermit city jutting out awkwardly amidst a booming, vibrant Asia that has reopened and embraced economic commonsense. Countries such as Singapore and Malaysia have roared into rejuvenation, whilst our city – a Special Administrative Region under China (yes, we should remember this, and speak of this fact, too) – struggles with remaining relevant.

I do not say this lightly. I do not make claims frivolously, with the intention of point-scoring against the government – I respect many in the administrations, past or present, who have sought to serve Hong Kong with the utmost integrity and conscientiousness. I have a lot of time for the civil servants who have toiled away and persevered amidst all the pressure and criticisms – in order to arrange hotel spaces for Hong Kongers seeking to make their way home. But I am frustrated, and fundamentally exasperated, by the fact that there are more flights flying in and out of KLIA2 on a Monday morning, than the entirety of flights making their way out of HKIA on any particular day in 2021 and the first half of 2022!

We cannot claim to be an aviation or tourism hub, when there quite literally aren’t enough flights to go around to get Hong Kongers home – or, indeed, to attract and cater to the plethora of tourists that had stuck by us throughout the political turmoil of 2019, and who would have loved to return, had it not been for the week-long quarantine routine that many, including those who are triple-jabbed and healthy and clearly COVID-negative, have to endure. In the meanwhile, even countries with relatively conservative and stringent COVID routines in the past, such as Korea and Japan, have reopened to visitors with minimal quarantine restrictions.

We cannot claim to be a welcoming city for all, when frankly, the absurd restrictions have led to the mass exodus of thousands of corporations and many more whose family and friends have been estranged from them as a result of the balderdash restrictions that keep them from one another. Seven days of quarantine may not be too long in an absolute vacuum – but against a continent of booming rivals and competitors that have pivoted towards a more pragmatic and results-oriented approach to the pandemic? They very well indeed are.

None of the above is to say that Hong Kong has not been successful with regards to vast swathes of the first 18 months in its pandemic response. Prior to January 2022, we had managed to keep our numbers low – in terms of both casualties and infections – through rigorous and meticulously perfected social distancing measures. The isolationist and pro-isolation approach had worked against the original COVID-19 strain, as well as Alpha, Delta, and such. Yet Omicron – and its motley crew of evolving strains – has changed everything. We are now facing a virus that is so fundamentally transmissible (as acknowledged by mainland Chinese experts, too, for what it’s worth!) that it would be futile in seeking to stifle its spread. Can we act? Must we act? Yes –

But to act here, must not be equated with the pursuit of blanket policies that are ill-suited to Hong Kong’s distinctive spatiotemporal, economic, and financial circumstances. Our value doesn’t stem from our manufacturing sectors – as wonderful as they may be; our primary selling point to the world isn’t our ‘low’ COVID-19 numbers – it’s the fact that you can hop into Hong Kong for a business trip in the early morning, plough through a series of face-to-face meetings (maskless or masked!) with colleagues and partners, grab a pleasant lunch with a colleague, and fly out in the evening. It’s the fact that when Hong Kongers go home, they feel genuinely welcome, as opposed to being ushered and ferried from one testing stop to another.

The worries of those who do not want to catch COVID-19 are understandable. COVID-19 isn’t particularly pleasant. But it’s high time that we did away with the undue paranoia and scaremongering that are threatening to collectively sink our city’s status as an international financial capital – once and for all. Persuading business travelers to return will take more than “story-telling”. It behooves action.

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Assistant Professor, HKU