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Why is Hong Kong Surrendering Its Future?

Why is Hong Kong Surrendering Its Future?

Sunday, 13 March, 2022 - 06:00

With anxiety and panic brimming over as an omicron outbreak surges through the city, Hong Kong has shown what it doesn’t care about: the future.

On Tuesday evening, the territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced measures including mass testing for its 7.4 million people and further tightening of social distancing rules — heading closer towards an all-out lockdown. From the beginning of the pandemic, Hong Kong has pushed the needs of children to the side. Lam’s administration is doing that again with these latest plans that will see schools — currently running online — close as early as next month for the summer holidays.

Officials want to use the buildings (where some teachers still go in to run classes remotely) for testing, isolation and vaccination. It isn’t clear why schools specifically have been chosen, despite the availability of other, larger facilities like government office buildings that aren’t currently in use. What is obvious though, is that there is one group that loses out: students.

As the administration digs its heels in over a policy that is no longer working to contain the virus, the decisions, including restricting children’s access to education, shows how short-termist and reactive policy making remains. It also lays out in plain sight the lack of an exit strategy or any plan for the future.

Part of the reason the latest announcements hit a raw nerve is that they came after a week filled with news of children as young as 11-months dying after testing positive for Covid-19. (The coroner is expected to investigate that case.) The grim statistics are outliers compared to elsewhere in the world. In the UK for example, omicron has resulted in babies being hospitalized but there had been no deaths reported as of Jan. 14. In the US, 0.00%-0.01% of all pediatric Covid-19 cases resulted in death.

In addition, isolation rules combined with a creaking health system have meant that parents are being forced to separate from their Covid-positive children. Local online forums are filled with anxious moms and dads trying to understand what they can do to protect their families. Faith in the system is understandably low.

All this is on top of the existing apathy toward the needs of children: Playgrounds, libraries, sport facilities — anything children would enjoy and that would be good for them — have remained largely shut for most of this year and at several points over the last two. The early closure of schools, the one avenue of socialization (even online) that helps create structure in their days, to use the facilities and not because infection is spreading there, is almost brazen. Lam’s administration says its policies are aimed at curbing infections by “discouraging members of the public from going out and joining activities unnecessarily.” But if this is how little consideration future generations are getting, it’s hard to say what that means for the more medium-term.

Officials need to realize these measures have a multiplier effect. Closing schools and forcing children inside isn’t just bad for them, it impacts their parents. Across the world, studies now show the dramatic hit families take because of school closures: On the mental health of children and parents, on double-income families trying to work effectively, on small businesses trying to stay alive — in one of the most expensive cities in the world. This may not be immediately quantifiable in Hong Kong, but their plight is palpable.

Yet, the rules keep coming and digging Hong Kong deeper into a hole. The heavily regimented mass-testing plan and threat of isolation, for instance, have only instilled further fear. They also create a burden on the health system that Hong Kong cannot handle, as has been made abundantly clear. Already, hospitals are full and thousands are waiting to be isolated because of the stringent rules. Officials continue to talk up building isolation facilities as cases keep rising. New daily infections will peak at almost 183,000 in March and by mid-May this latest outbreak will likely have claimed more than 3,000 lives, according to an updated forecast from Hong Kong University published Tuesday.

Hong Kong’s fall from grace has been staggering, especially for a city that’s supposed to have all the trappings of a global financial center. The measures continue to push people out of the city — close to 25,000 people have left this month — and erode the territory’s future viability. The move to shut schools early leaves no doubt that the territory will continue to shift the burden and responsibility of the pandemic on its people — even its youngest and most vulnerable — without truly taking stock of what policies work and what don’t.


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