Hong Kong's Covid Reality Bubble Is Bursting
Hong Kong's Covid Reality Bubble Is Bursting
Omicron is no respecter of titles or jazzy labels. The Hong Kong government’s “Dynamic Zero Infection” strategy, for which the city has sacrificed much in pursuit of resumed links with mainland China, is hanging by a thread. Confirmed Covid cases surged to 614 on Monday, almost double the previous day’s total and an exponential rate of increase that makes further record tallies inevitable. Any hope of regaining control rests with Hong Kong’s pandemic-wearied people. They may prove a less than wholly reliable ally.
No official has yet declared the zero-tolerance policy a failure, but the plaintive tone of the government’s Covid discourse tells its own story. At a press conference, a panel of health executives repeatedly appealed for the public’s cooperation to slow the spread of Hong Kong’s fifth and biggest wave of the virus, enjoining people to refrain from social gatherings and just stay home. Those entreaties echoed a Sunday blog post by Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan, who urged everyone to “Do your part to fight the epidemic.”
The dilemma for authorities is easy to appreciate. The city has wedded itself to mainland China’s isolationist pandemic strategy, a stance that has looked increasingly like an act of self-harm for a financial hub built on international connections, especially as much of the world abandons Covid-Zero policies and learns to live with the virus. Yet Hong Kong cannot simply pivot, even if that were politically possible. Vaccination rates for the most vulnerable segment of the population — the elderly — remain far too low. Relaxing restrictions could risk catastrophe, in terms of lost lives and an overwhelmed health system.
Hence, Hong Kong is doubling down, making some pragmatic adjustments such as introducing home quarantine for some people while signaling even tougher social-distancing controls ahead and, crucially, pleading with the public to get behind its approach. Compliance cannot be taken for granted. After two years of lifestyle, travel and various other restrictions, pandemic fatigue is widespread. There’s little appetite for more of the same, particularly when so many doubts have been aired over whether the Covid-Zero policy is actually in Hong Kong’s best interests.
The surge in infections is the product of the Lunar New Year festive period, when families and friends typically come together to feast and celebrate. Prior to last week's three-day holiday, the government urged people to stay at home “as far as possible” and avoid gatherings among families, noting the risk of a worsening epidemic. How did that work out? The numbers speak for themselves.
Willingness to buy into the government’s strategy depends on the level of public trust and goodwill built up during the pandemic. This, needless to say, is sorely lacking. That’s a legacy of contradictory, inconsistently applied and poorly communicated policies. The latest spate of restrictions, announced after omicron cases started to appear in early January, was no different. These included stopping in-room restaurant dining after 6 p.m. (though not before), and closing outdoor children’s playgrounds. Walk through Hong Kong’s vast country parks and you will come across deserted picnic areas, cordoned off and with signs warning of prosecution for those who dare to enter. Meanwhile, there has been no attempt to limit numbers in the city’s frequently jampacked indoor shopping malls (this is finally being considered).
The poor vaccination rate among the elderly is itself evidence of the authorities’ ineffective public messaging. Seniors’ reluctance can be traced to a government advisory that followed several post-vaccination deaths and cases of adverse reactions early last year. The administration has had plenty of time to shift attitudes since then, and has had only limited success. Only about 32% of over-80s have had a first vaccine dose, compared with more than 92% of those aged 40 to 49. Moreover, most have opted for the Sinovac shot, which has been found to provide inadequate protection against omicron.
There is some good news. The vaccination rate among the over-80s has risen from 19% in December, so readiness to get the shot is finally gaining traction. That probably owes more to the arrival of omicron than to anything the Hong Kong authorities have said or done. Self-preservation is a great motivator, with the fifth wave breaking the false security created by months without any Covid cases.
For the government, the reality of omicron has shown up the chimera of its Covid-Zero strategy. At best, tighter social-distancing measures will buy time. Officials should use it to push up the vaccination rate as their top priority. Second should be planning their exit from a doomed policy.