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Where Were You When They Came for the Hamsters?

Where Were You When They Came for the Hamsters?

Thursday, 20 January, 2022 - 04:30

It has the feel of a surrealist watershed, the moment that brought home the nature of Hong Kong’s dystopian journey more vividly than any other. Perhaps we will look back one day, when this is all over, and remember where we were when they decided to kill the hamsters.

The scientific basis for the government’s decision to euthanize 2,000 of the small mammals appears questionable, at least. It follows the discovery that 11 of the creatures were infected with the delta variant of Covid-19. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of animals spreading the virus to people is low. A Hong Kong-based health academic called the cull unjustified and excessive. Animal welfare workers are outraged.

Ridicule was swift, with hamster memes and emojis quickly multiplying on social media. Parents can be forgiven for thinking they are living through a Kafkaesque nightmare. Kindergartens and primary schools are already closed, and playgrounds roped off, as the government hews to its zero-Covid policy and tries to contain an outbreak of the omicron strain. Some parents now face the task of telling their little ones why a pet has to be dispatched to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department for some “humane treatment,” as one official described it.

The episode is something of a perfect singularity for Hong Kong, fusing together the absurdity, arbitrariness and rigidity of policies that have characterized the government’s public health and political programs since the onset of the pandemic. In both cases, the approach has been driven by one overriding imperative: ever-closer alignment with mainland China. After two years of enforced isolation, it’s a policy that has put the long-term future of Hong Kong as a business hub and international financial center increasingly into question.

Would Hong Kong officials really have taken such a rapid and draconian step were they not adhering to China’s own strategy for keeping Covid at bay? This relies on strict policies aimed at stamping out infection clusters wherever they occur, enforced without compromise and with scant regard for the effect on those caught on the wrong side of such measures. We “have no choice, we have to make a firm decision,” Thomas Sit, an assistant director at the agriculture department, said Tuesday. No choice, really? Officials examined hamsters at the Little Boss pet store after a worker tested positive, and found them infected with delta. But there is no evidence that the animals can spread Covid to humans, and health experts remain dubious. Hong Kong has carried out mass slaughters before to contain disease outbreaks. But the animals in question were chickens and pigs rather than cuddly rodents that are favorite household pets of small children. There appears to have been no awareness of how this announcement would look to the public and the outside world — something that’s perhaps a hazard for an unaccountable administration keen to show it’s capable of tough and decisive action.

In a government press release, a spokesman defended the hamster cull by referring to the Netherlands and Denmark, which in 2020 killed millions of mink — one animal that has been confirmed to be capable of spreading Covid to humans. It’s not a comparison that Hong Kong would be wise to dwell on. The slaughter of 17 million mink in Denmark provoked an outcry, and proved illegal. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen was questioned by a parliamentary commission last month, and could face impeachment if it finds that she didn’t tell the truth.

Hong Kong government officials, who are appointed by Beijing, don’t face such accountability. Neither do lawmakers, who are put in place by a committee or elected by a much smaller voter base after China overhauled the system to exclude the pro-democracy opposition. Earlier this month, dozens of officials and legislators attended a 200-strong birthday party in defiance of the government’s own warnings. None have resigned or been fired, though they were sent to a quarantine camp. Even that had a silver lining, though: The government reduced the mandatory quarantine period to 14 days from 21 days, enabling Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui and Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang to leave early.

It turns out that there is a choice, and flexibility is possible, in matters of public health policy. The hamsters may not be so lucky.


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