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Money Can't Soothe Hong Kong's Lockdown Anxiety

Money Can't Soothe Hong Kong's Lockdown Anxiety

Thursday, 24 February, 2022 - 05:30

Rarely has a Hong Kong budget been presented in such gloomy circumstances. The city is in its coldest spell of the year, and has been sodden by several days of persistent rain. As omicron cases spiral and the health system is overwhelmed, the specter of a full-scale lockdown still hangs over a Covid-fatigued population. The pandemic made its presence felt from the outset Wednesday, with Financial Secretary Paul Chan forced to forgo an appearance before the legislature and deliver his speech by video instead.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam added to the sense of a city embattled by saying a day earlier that Hong Kong is fighting a “war” with the virus, as she announced plans for compulsory mass testing of all residents. Chan produced a financial plan to match, outlining a $22 billion package of counter-cyclical relief measures that included tax reductions, fee waivers and $1,281 of consumption vouchers for 6.6 million people. The printed budget was given a brown cover, which Chan said symbolized the nutrient-rich soil that nurtures growth. For many, it is more likely to suggest the mire into which Hong Kong has sunk itself.

It’s hard to avoid the contrast with Singapore, which was confident enough to raise taxes last week as the city-state learns to live with the virus and charts a course toward further reopening. Hong Kong, meanwhile, is in damage limitation mode, as shown by Chan’s unsparing assessment. The economy and people’s livelihoods have been under “immense pressure” amid the fifth wave; tightened restrictions have led to a “drastic fall” in the flow of people and seriously dampened consumer sentiment, he said. The surge that caused that retrenchment reached 6,211 confirmed Covid cases as of Tuesday. Singapore’s daily tally is running at more than 25,000.

Such is the dividend for having a vaccinated population. Of Hong Kong’s many blunders in its pandemic management, this stands out as a particularly damaging failure. Only 58% of residents aged 70 to 79 have had two doses of vaccine; that falls to 29% for the over-80s. In Singapore, 96% of 70 to 79-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and 94% of the over-80s, according to Ministry of Health data.

Omicron is highly transmissible, though mostly mild in its effects for those who are sufficiently innoculated. Hence, Singapore has been loosening up modestly and yet healthcare capacity has remained sufficient, even as omicron rages toward a peak. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, elderly patients have been left on gurneys in the open air for lack of hospital beds, long before the fifth wave crests. In such circumstances, there is little alternative to tightening social-distancing measures, and accepting the economic damage that these entail. The projections are dire: Cumulative deaths could reach 3,200 by mid-May in the absence of much more intensive, lockdown-like restrictions, research from a team of Hong Kong-based medical academics and health data experts showed Monday. That’s more than 10 times the death toll from the city’s SARS outbreak in 2003.

Lam has said there are no plans for a “complete, wholesale” lockdown akin to those imposed several times in the mainland. Talk of such a drastic step refuses to go away, though. Chinese officials have told Hong Kong that they think a lockdown will be needed to contain the surge in cases, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday, citing people familiar with the discussions. Hong Kong lawmaker and businessman Michael Tien called Wednesday for a nine-day closure next month, saying: “I’d rather have a quick fix than long-term pain.”

It’s unclear why the Hong Kong government has felt able to push back against Beijing’s desire for a lockdown. City officials have generally jumped with alacrity to echo the central government’s line, especially since the passing of a national security law in mid-2020 that tightened its grip on the territory. Chan, in his budget speech, paid tribute to the “staunch support and unfailing assistance from our country” in reaffirming Hong Kong’s adherence to the mainland’s “dynamic zero infection” strategy — a policy that, by any rational measure, has already failed in the city’s case. Flattening the curve to buy the health system time is one thing; few health experts believe Hong Kong can get back to zero cases once this wave has abated.

Lockdown is a loaded word, and that may account for the government’s hesitancy. For many in Hong Kong, it will conjure up visions of families sealed in their apartments and patients refused hospital admission, among the traumas documented in the mainland. Moreover, a citywide lockdown would surely require considerable logistical support from across the border — something that Hong Kong officials may feel would create awkward optics, even after the post-2020 reduction in the city’s promised autonomy.

Nevertheless, if the objective is to short-circuit the chain of transmission and reduce the exponential spread of infections, more draconian measures may be unavoidable. There’s some logic in Tien’s argument that a short, sharp shock may be better than stretching out the pain. Why wait until mid-March, though? By then, the fifth wave may have peaked anyway. As Macbeth would advise, if it were done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.

The mixed messages that surround Hong Kong’s lockdown debate are characteristic of the muddle that has marked the city’s Covid policy. Chan repeatedly stressed the importance of confidence to the health of the economy in his budget speech. This, more than anything, depends on clear, transparent and consistent policymaking. No amount of monetary handouts can make up for its absence.


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