Towards a bold yet measured reopening of Hong Kong

July 27, 2022 09:13
Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong must reopen, promptly.

Hong Kongers know this. Tell this to the thousands stranded abroad, keenly awaiting the next flight – and hotel slots – back to their hometown. Tell this to the many more who are hoping to travel out of the city, but are most reticent to endure the ordeal of seven days in entrapment. Trust me, as someone who has just emerged from the process, it is mind-numbingly despair-inducing. Truly not a welcoming experience – despite the best efforts of our excellent civil service and administrators.

Foreign tourists and investors also know this. We have had a cataclysmic collapse in our numbers of visitors – business or tourism-oriented – since the imposition of the draconian quarantine measures. The combination of stringent entry requirements, dubiously rigorous and diligently enforced testing requirements, and the overarching paranoia concerning COVID-19 in our city, is both toxic and lethal.

Finally, Beijing knows this, too. President Xi Jinping has emphasised repeatedly in his emphatic July 1 address that Hong Kong must remain an open, globalised, internationally connected city and nexus for China’s globalisation efforts. Hong Kong’s value to its own country has always rested with its ability to adopt different – albeit fundamentally complementary – policies in domains ranging from public health to legal jurisdiction, as a means of supporting China’s developmental trajectory and economic wellbeing at large.

Of course, the question rests with the how. How can we reopen Hong Kong gradually without offending the sensibilities of those who are – rightly or wrongly – concerned over the public health implications or bearings on our city’s reopening to our compatriots from the mainland (e.g. the Mainland-Hong Kong border)? How can we reopen Hong Kong without throwing under the bus our city’s most vulnerable and marginalised?

We could ill-afford to wait any longer. November – touted by some to be the prospective ‘deadline’ for our reopening – is far too distant. In three months’ time, much will have changed in the world at large, and if we are unable to adapt and adjust accordingly, we will be left behind. Investor confidence is hard-won, and easily lost.

Three suggestions to follow. First, it is imperative that we lift all quarantine requirements for travellers who test negative via a RAT or PCR test within 72 hours of departure, and who are fully vaccinated – we can define this as three jabs, if you will; or however many jabs needed, just to be safe. No more 5+2, 4+3, or 3+4 – if necessary, health codes can be introduced to complement this move, to minimise the potential spillover and downside risks associated. Yet given the clear disparity in numbers of imported vs. local cases (the former constitutes an incredibly limited minority), I would posit that the marginal increases in risks are not only manageable, but also well worth taking in order to rescue our economy. As for travellers who are not fully vaccinated yet test negative, it would be reasonable for quarantine measures to remain in place. Those who test positive should not be allowed to travel into Hong Kong until they recover. A more pragmatic pandemic policy does not mean lying flat in face of unbridled spread and contagion – we are not, contrary to some allegations, lying flat.

Second, we need to seriously up our vaccination rates – with effective vaccines – for the elderly, vulnerable, and chronically ill. Mandatory vaccination may not be the solution, but what is needed here is substantially more clarity on the need for families to get fully jabbed-up and boosted. A booster is not a bonus, but a must. Tie vaccination with positive incentives (as opposed to tying the lack of vaccination with punitive measures) as a way of kickstarting a booster campaign – especially amongst the 65 or above. For those who remain immunocompromised and susceptible even after three or four jabs, ensure that there exist adequate semi-closed-circuit shielding mechanisms in place to protect their wellbeing. For the rest of Hong Kong’s population, however, reopening to the world should not prove to be a problem – we have endured the devastating wave earlier this year, and it is clear that there exists at least some level of immunity in our population.

I am not making these recommendations in lieu or place of the many brilliant epidemiologists who have spoken on this subject already. I am instead deferring to and drawing upon the collective wisdom of many who have advocated a pragmatic, forward-looking, yet fundamentally measured public health approach – given Hong Kong’s unique status and position as amongst China’s most global cities.

Finally, it is high time that we streamlined processes ranging from the airport arrival/quarantine protocol, through to the health codes and ‘Leave Home Safe’ app. Hong Kong must and shall contain the virus’ spread, to ensure that it does not overload our medical infrastructure. Yet in so doing, we must be precise and focused in our response – in ensuring that we are neither disproportionately overreacting nor negligently underreacting to the various threats that confront us today, amongst which the virus counts as but one. The economic costs, the damage to our reputation abroad, and the constrictions to our soft power, are all potent and salient considerations that merit our attention.

It is time for Hong Kong to open up. Not later, not in six months’ or one year’s time. But also not with reckless zeal and lack of clarity. A bold, rapid, yet measured reopening is in all parties’ interest.

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Assistant Professor, HKU