In the past couple weeks, Hong Kong’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic made international headlines in a strange and unexpected way. Facing a virus outbreak in recent weeks, Hong Kong officials implemented a range of measures in response to what was labelled a “fifth wave,” but the one that caught the most attention must be the culling of more than 2,200 hamsters after a COVID-19 case was traced to workers of a pet shop, and traces of the virus were found on 11 hamsters out of the 178 tested.
Authorities then called on the public to turn in their pet hamsters to be culled en masse, in spite of outcry from animal lovers. An expert from the WHO also said that the risk of animals like hamsters infecting humans with the coronavirus “remains low.” So far at least one hamster which was turned in by its owner, as opposed to the previous lot in pet shops, was found to be carrying the virus.
Another recent COVID-19 report that became the talk of the town was how a schoolteacher caught the virus apparently by encountering two other infected people in a subway station tunnel, for a brief period of nine seconds, while all were wearing masks and had no direct contact. Such detective-work in tracing individual cases has become a hallmark of the zero COVID tactics undertaken by Hong Kong authorities ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Distraction of the Hamsters
Meanwhile, city authorities confirmed more than 170 new COVID-19 infections from two nearby public housing buildings in Kwai Chung, the highest number in 18 months, resulting in authorities ordering a five-day lockdown for the thousands of residents in both buildings. Mandatory COVID-19 testing was ordered for hundreds of thousands of citizens across the city, based on contact tracing or just being residents or workers in buildings with confirmed cases. And, in a case of bad timing, all these are happening as the city heads into the Lunar New Year holiday period, traditionally the most festive time of the year. Restaurants have been ordered to reduce capacity and the traditional annual flower markets are cancelled.
Amid the current wave, medical experts continue to emphasize to the public the need for Hong Kong to achieve a higher full vaccination rate – Hong Kong’s fully vaccinated rate of 63 percent is on par with the U.S., but is starkly lower than regional peers such as Taiwan (72 percent), Japan (79 percent), South Korea (85 percent) and Singapore (87 percent). Meanwhile, however, Hong Kong’s experts are also sidetracked into defending government actions such as the culling of hamsters, by partially blaming the mass euthanasia on people who did not get vaccinated.
All these are regrettable distractions in Hong Kong’s fight against COVID-19. The government seems to be trapped in a rabbit hole to justify what Chief Executive Carrie Lam has called the “dynamic zero-infection” strategy, code words for adhering to China’s overall zero COVID approach. The team of government medical advisers continues to correctly stress that, despite the overall lower rate of serious infection from the Omicron variant, the effect on the older population and those with chronic illness may still be severe. However, there is a lack of any effective plan of communication and action to relate such concerns in a way that will convince more of the holdouts to get vaccinated.
Moreover, although most people would agree that getting more Hong Kongers to vaccinate is a good thing, it would be misleading to simply infer that a high vaccination rate would automatically mean zero or even low infection. We can see this from the recent surge of cases in South Korea, one of the countries with the highest vaccination rates.
It is a mismanagement of both policy messaging and public resources to fixate on relatively unproductive matters such as culling hamsters. Instead, in order to protect the most vulnerable, what has the Hong Kong government done to prioritize the protection of senior citizens and directly assist those who are most in need of medical attention? In order to maintain social distancing, rather than or in addition to suspending crowd gatherings such as flower markets, what have the authorities done to effectively encourage or even mandate measures such as working from home? The answer is, very little.
The Urgent Need to Manage the Jump From Zero
As other countries increasingly emphasize the large-scale provision of frequent, voluntary, and free self-testing at home for all, Hong Kong continues to rely on officially mandated compulsory testing drives by having the police round up residents of entire buildings overnight to get all inside tested, causing them much anxiety and discomfort, and thereby creating an undesirable stigma for what should be an effective and fundamental safeguard against infection.
Understandably, going from zero COVID-19 cases to any positive number, however small, would be a big shock. For a population trained and accustomed to the comfort of zero infections for most of the last two years, it can be frightening to accept a new reality of “living with COVID.” That may explain why, while many people in Hong Kong are unhappy and dissatisfied with the government’s responses, they are just as uncomfortable with the concept of treating COVID-19 as endemic, with many expressing shock at the relaxed and “callous” manner with which some in the West regard the COVID-19 virus.
But like it or not, if the rest of the world has decided to “live with COVID,” it will be more and more impractical for any government to insist on a zero COVID stand. This is true for Hong Kong as much as it is true for China. Indeed, the cost of isolation appears to be mounting, with no end in sight. In a recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, 44 percent of the respondents indicated they may leave Hong Kong due to its draconian border controls and social restrictions. Currently, flights from a list of “Group A” countries are suspended, and no individuals who have stayed for more than two hours in any of these countries within the last 21 days will be allowed to enter Hong Kong – even if they are Hong Kong citizens. These countries include Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the U.K. and the U.S.
Such travel bans are hardly scientific, and even the World Health Organization has recommended against them in a recent report as unsustainable. These border closures can bring dire consequences to the economy, and the interruption to the supply chain of goods and business confidence has already been increasingly felt by local and global businesses. Lam has acknowledged that “rising costs will be felt by everyone.” Nonetheless, the government has offered no alternative, no solution, and no relief.
Zero COVID Is More Politics Than Science
Just as regrettably, criticizing or casting doubts on zero COVID is politically incorrect and a taboo in Hong Kong. Even among the medical community, there is a lack of open discussion in search of a more balanced approach than a practically unattainable and unsustainable target of zero COVID. Only a few medical academics have come out to express doubts over matters such as the lack of scientific reasons to support the 21-days centralized quarantine period for infection, compared with quarantining at home for as short as five days in many other countries. If science is not driving Hong Kong’s COVID-19 response, what is?
The government’s “key goal” is to open its border with mainland China, which would require matching the mainland’s zero CVID stance. This ambition is the real cause of draconian measures, including the hamster culling.
Such is the awkward situation that Hong Kong has found itself in, being an international hub for finance and commerce, yet with no choice but to follow China’s zero COVID obsession. Over the past year, the Hong Kong administration along with the local pro-Beijing politicians – now unopposed after the purging of all opposition from Hong Kong’s political scene – has been adamantly pursuing harsher and harsher domestic measures, purportedly trying to meet Beijing’s requirements for re-opening the border with the mainland. While the re-opening is still denied by Beijing, Hong Kong has instead succeeded in isolating itself from the rest of the world.
The longer Hong Kong holds out before it finds a way to counterbalance its zero COVID deference to Beijing with the real-world costs to its people, the more difficult and the higher the cost it will be for Hong Kong to extract itself from the hole it dug for itself. On the other hand, Beijing should see Hong Kong as the ideal testing ground for an exit plan from zero COVID. After all, Hong Kong’s value is always its differentiation from the mainland, rather than complete integration and sameness.
However, judging from the political development in the last few years, such rethinking on the role of Hong Kong will prove elusive. That’s doubly true in 2022, which is an exceptionally political year for China – with Xi Jinping’s planned ascension to a precedent-breaking third term – and for Hong Kong, with Beijing loyalists jockeying for Beijing’s favor to be anointed as the next chief executive. Under those circumstances, it’s unlikely either Beijing or Hong Kong will take the political risks needed to move away from zero COVID. So, sadly, while many in the rest of the world may see the beginning of the end to the pandemic, Hong Kong, and indeed China, show no signs of moving forward.