Hong Kong’s veneer of normalcy has been shattered — and it’s exposed just how misguided and unrealistic the territory’s Covid-19 containment strategy has become two years into the pandemic.
After months of no local Covid infections, Hong Kong reported a string of positive cases over the past week. The territory’s so-called fifth wave was set off by an aircrew employee who didn’t fully comply with his medical surveillance rules — a special concession for airlines. He went to a restaurant for lunch and it quickly spread from there. Several senior government officials, including the territory’s police chief, immigration head and financial services secretary, were ordered into quarantine after attending a birthday party that flouted warnings to avoid large gatherings.
One thing is glaringly obvious: A Covid Zero strategy — if it can be called that at this point — is not sustainable. It is a tactic to buy time that served Hong Kong well in the early days. That one person can set off a string of cases from a restaurant or that a birthday party of high-ranking officials can result in the mass quarantine of attendees shows how fragile Hong Kong’s measures are. An unlinked case has also emerged.
If officials are unwilling to adapt to the reality of the world
in 2022, then there’s no turning around from Hong Kong’s
fast downhill journey into isolation and irrelevance as a
This community outbreak scenario was an inevitability that Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration did not want to acknowledge. The complacency and mulish stance has meant the city has not taken any measures to prepare for a potential surge in cases, including getting aggressive about vaccinations for the vulnerable and beefing up hospital and health infrastructure — the territory’s perennial weakness. Efforts to bolster the city’s cratering infrastructure (especially sewage and drainage) or strengthen ventilation requirements, for instance, aren’t even on the radar. Vaccination rates remain among the lowest for developed countries, with only around 36% of those aged 70 years and above fully vaccinated. It’s even lower for those 80 and older.
So here we are. Blame the aircrew or his company’s CEO or the merrymaking officials, the reality is that Hong Kong’s failure is its own doing. This is what happens when a population of almost 8 million people is lulled into a false sense of security by draconian policies that impinge on personal freedoms and are rife with contradictions, in order to do the impossible: Keep the virus outside Hong Kong’s borders.
The territory has not adapted to the rapidly changing world of Covid we now live in (I couldn’t tell you what that looks like or feels like since I haven’t left for almost two years, like many others).
In an interview last year, Health Secretary Sophia Chan told me the territory topped the global normalcy index, a proxy created by the Economist to track how behavior has changed because of the pandemic. She then added: “Just remember, Hong Kong has never had any lockdowns” or “stringent measures like in other countries.” Since then, the territory’s ranking has dropped — one of the steepest falls over the last few weeks — moving it further away from the rest of the world’s evolving reality. A recent survey found that nearly two out three were unhappy with life in the city, while one in five have thought about leaving 1 .
Hong Kong’s normal right now is knee-jerk reactions: Flights to several countries, including the US and UK, are currently banned, leaving residents either stranded abroad or stuck inside. Those that make it in have to go to a quarantine center for up to one week and then isolate in a mandated hotel for another couple weeks (if they can find one and where they also run the risk of getting Covid). This has been a consistent feature and far from the usual for a global financial center with a highly mobile population.
The government is in panic mode. In a press conference Friday, officials said they had put in place surge capacity protocols. They’ve deployed a host of people to track and trace. In addition, hundreds — including children — identified as close contacts of positive cases have been sent off to quarantine facilities. A 4-year-old child who tested positive has been isolated (without her parents it seems) in a government hospital. Playgrounds and gyms have been shuttered. Dining in restaurants after 6 p.m. is banned. Several buildings, public buses and neighborhoods are getting caught in the dragnet of compulsory testing notices — a requirement if you’ve been where a person who tested positive has been — even if it was several days ago. It’s fueling an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Schools are on edge, fearing closure and the reinstitution of remote-learning and have started to restrict activities once again.
It’s hard to determine the rationale behind these measures. What changes after 6 p.m. that dining in should be banned? Why deprive children of outdoor facilities like playgrounds that are rarely jammed with people? This is what’s happened in Hong Kong for the past two years — on loop. I couldn’t tell you if its January 2020 or 2022 right now.
Such reactive lockdowns, closures and curfews fail to deal with the root of the problem: The nature of Covid means it is impossible to stop it crossing borders, and only high vaccination levels along with dynamic public health policies work. So we never move forward. Instead, the measures infantilize a population that is increasingly losing its ability to live in a world that has gone two steps forward, one step backward when it comes to the virus, but at least it keeps moving. It’s left people unable to appropriately assess personal risk and living in a state of heightened paranoia and panic.
The anti-epidemic policies curtail personal choice and freedom, which has lead to some perverse behaviors. The closed borders have disincentivized vaccinations. Because people are made to believe “there’s no Covid here,” there are anecdotal reports of individuals avoiding the official contract tracing app and instead using burner phones to scan in to avoid government monitoring. Increasingly, people are turning to cash in restaurants lest they be identified by their credit card information and banished to quarantine. The fear of being sent to into isolation remains far higher than getting infected.
A sneeze or cough gets a cheetah-like stare. Last week, I walked onto a public, neighborhood playground (when they were open) with my daughter. A grandmother was running around — a stack of individually packaged alcohol wipes in tow — scrubbing down slides for her granddaughter. There were no other children there.
True, Covid-19 measures have come and gone all over the world. Health authorities have, at times, overstepped. Hong Kong, though, has consistently failed to present a plan for moving on or shown any foresight in their pandemic strategy.
Before the latest outbreak, policy makers were talking up opening borders to mainland China. That was supposed to happen last month. This created a sense of hope for many (not all) that maybe, just maybe, we were ready to move forward in some direction. That proved short-lived. The latest measures have stripped Hong Kong residents of any hope that borders will eventually open or that there will be a rational or reasonable response.
Social anxiety is again on the rise. The optics of making government officials serve 21 days in quarantine isn’t going to fix this, nor will an investigation. Nor will cringe-worthy apologies from lawmakers or blaming, firing, and fining individuals. The only thing that will steer sentiment is reassessing the Covid Zero policy and admitting it has royally failed.
If officials are unwilling to adapt to the reality of the world in 2022, then there’s no turning around from Hong Kong’s fast downhill journey into isolation and irrelevance as a financial capital — or even an important Chinese territory.
Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion Columnist.