The health code must not perpetuate COVID-stigma

July 19, 2022 09:41
Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau said authorities are hoping to introduce a ‘health code’ system as soon as possible, by adding the function to the existing LeaveHomeSafe app.Photo: RTHK

The recent proposal of the health color code seems to jolt many Hongkongers out of their COVID-induced stupor. Since April, our minds have been saturated by daily and repetitive COVID news. Many were expecting a further easing of social distancing measures rather than a tightening of them. Is this controversial proposal merely a kludge to free us from the quagmire that our previous administration had a hand in creating?

Before we tilt at the windmills, let’s take stock of the current situation. Despite a controlled death rate, infection cases remain high. Local or global health experts alike have failed to fully apprehend the ramifications of the disease and its endless variants. One must wonder whether we have any better options to graft onto our existing measures.

The outcome of doing nothing is much less predictable. What if infection rates surge out of control without the government’s deliberate intervention? Large number of infected cases would strain our public health system, onset delays to trace contacts, thus increasing infection and even worse, death rates. The health code can go some way towards slashing this possibility.

Beyond that, any ensuing disasters, whether it is economic or social, would put our government in an invidious position for skating around this problem. Too many factitious attacks against the ruling authority were based on parochial views of a sliver of society.

Let’s be clear, the new measure would not obviate COVID. It’s not meant to do so. It’s merely a preventive mechanism to avoid further spikes in infection rates. When public health is at stake, we should learn to adapt rather than clinging onto some sclerotic ideologies. Focus should be placed on updating the new plans that reflect the context in which our changing paradigms are founded.

Some people vilify the new measure for ghettoizing or discriminating against those who are or might be infected. But we would argue that a color-coded system that helps segregate the infected group from everyone else can increase societal welfare on aggregate, notwithstanding the alleged discriminatory nature. Local communities can internalize the benefits of this system: from limiting transmissibility to relieving the strain on the understaffed public health infrastructure. Efforts to address public health challenges must yield concentrated benefits within the enacting sectors. Painstakingly demarcating limitations and disclosure of the collected data should be an essential desideratum.

Any callous allegations against the measures must disclose the facts grounding the allegations, conceding that discrimination or any decrease of rights because of this enhanced measure, although always bad, can sometimes be the lesser of two evils. Just casually throwing any conceivable criticism around is reckless and insensitive.

The measures must be fair – not arbitrary – carefully designed to achieve the objective and judiciously connected to that objective. The effects of the health code may not be immediate nor linear, but we must trust that the system will ultimately bring out the desired results.

Hong Kong has been split by polarization. Conspiracies-besotted truthers about Hong Kong’s affairs used to be mostly posturing and positioning, the assumption of extreme rhetorical positions at no real-world costs. If someone has a political axe to grind, no amount of proselytizing is going to change their mind. But this time is different – the persistently high case numbers portend another disaster. Before we look askance at the proposal, we should evaluate what are the benefits it could bring.

Determining the limits of any COVID-related policy is always a touchy matter. Most people remain apprehensive about the possibilities of unknowingly carrying the coronavirus. Latent angst and paranoia continue to pervade our guarded community. There is no denying that all the ill-effects of COVID along with the associated stigmatization and discrimination have far-reaching consequences. If any experiment to curb the virus goes awry, there will be significant consequences for those who roll the dice.

Implementing a health code is not intended to inflame the past blazing partisan acrimony. But letting the deadly pandemic ebbs and flows convulse over an illusory enemy of prejudices will be a mistake. Surely, it behooves hardened officials to take decisive and conscious measures to curb the entrenched stigma associated with the disease. What is of particular importance is to appeal to the public to fight the disease, not the diseased, to reduce stigma and foster togetherness. After three tumultuous years when dark prejudices almost tore us apart, we should all learn to be wary of treating every policy decision as the be-all and end-all of our shared future.

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The writer is a lawyer based in Hong Kong.