Full reopening of Hong Kong requires a mindset shift

December 15, 2022 11:00
Photo: RTHK

The HKSAR administration’s decision to suspend the LeaveHomeSafe app and drop quarantine/semi-social isolation requirements for inbound travellers – effective from December 14 onwards – was a move that must be commended. It is commendable for two reasons: first, for bringing some semblance of long-overdue normalcy to travel in and out of the city; second, for signalling to the world that perhaps, at least when it comes to travel to and fro the city, Hong Kong is indeed back.

Yet this is by no means enough. I was sauntering on the streets yesterday as I overheard conversations lambasting… the government’s decision to open up. Two middle-aged folks complained, as they were strutting into the shopping mall, that the suspension of the LeaveHomeSafe app would lead to “surging cases” and “infections” of which they were wary.

Now don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that each and every individual has the right to their own emotions – including fear, however irrational or ill-substantiated such sentiments might be. Indeed, I could even grant that undergirding some of these fears could be reasonable objections to unbridled, unmanaged, and poorly planned opening-up that leaves the vulnerable to rot and suffer in silence and dearth of remedy.

This is clearly not Hong Kong. We have been through five waves (on official record) and two further waves (unofficial tally, per Dr. Siddharth Sridhar’s comments on Backchat on December 14) of COVID-19; our population has largely cultivated sufficient immunity by now, whether it be via infection (repeated, in some cases) or vaccination, or a combination of both. Our public health system is – whilst strained – by no means ill-equipped to tackle the potential (slight) increase in number of cases: so long as fatality and mortality rates remain sufficiently low (with the proportion of deaths to cases staying beneath a designated threshold), there exists no cause for concern. Indeed, what worries me more is the fervour and devotion with which many remain wedded to the notion that COVID-19 is an unsightly beast – one that must be avoided and tamed at any and all cost.

The rest of our country is opening up with the swiftness and efficiency that elude many a bureaucracy and “liberal” democracy around the world. Whilst this has indubitably culminated at concerns pertaining to overstretched resources and overflowing hospitals, the decisions being undertaken across the border clearly demonstrate a paradigm shift in how China views COVID-19: given the vaccination rates, weakening strains, and taking into account the economic and social downsides of continued lockdowns, our national government has opted to shift towards a modus operandi where the Chinese population must contend with co-existing alongside COVID-19, whilst striving as much as possible to prevent severe cases and protect the most vulnerable. This shift in rationale and approach to the pandemic should be echoed – not just throughout the mainland, but also in Hong Kong.

It is high time that our government undertook active steps in quelling the fears and exaggerated fears of our populace – when it comes to COVID-19. By this I do not mean straight-up propaganda that would only fall on deaf ears; I mean clear, unambiguous communication campaigns that emphasise that COVID-19 is not something to worry about – so long as one is fully vaccinated, has been exposed/infected previously, and seeks medical treatment only when one is experiencing genuinely moderate or severe symptoms. Mask-wearing within indoor spaces, hand-washing and -sanitising ought to remain as protocol for as long as is needed, but it is imperative that we recognise that the risks of COVID-19 are no longer unbeknownst to us: they are known knowns that deserve moderate, yet not outsized, caution.

The next steps in the reopening schedule ought to be rather clear – it’s high time to replace PCR tests with RAT tests, and to further reduce the number of mandatory tests for incoming travellers. We should also look to lifting the mask mandate for individuals who are outdoors – as a means of further restoring economic activities and reducing the volume of disruptions that citizens have to put up with. Yet most fundamentally, none of these measures would work or take effect, unless we engage in the aforementioned mindset shift – we must stop worrying about the non-existent or hyperbolically expressed effects of COVID-19, and take a more pragmatic, phlegmatic approach to the entire matter at hand.

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Assistant Professor, HKU