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A Tale of Two Covid-Zero Policies: Hong Kong and China

A Tale of Two Covid-Zero Policies: Hong Kong and China

Wednesday, 30 March, 2022 - 04:45

Hong Kong appears to have accepted defeat. Chief Executive Carrie Lam set out a blueprint for undoing the stringent social distancing measures and border curbs that severely curtailed residents’ daily lives for the past two years. Despite the government’s Covid-zero measures, 3.6 million of the city’s 7.3 million residents may have been infected. The statistic reflects badly on Hong Kong. But that doesn’t mean that the same policy in China has failed.

To most of the world, there is a simple reason for why Hong Kong is a pandemic shambles: The territory is acting on guidance from Beijing. But the mainland has been far more clever and dynamic with the implementation of its Covid-zero agenda. While the territory has been reactive and prone to slapping down panicky measures, the mainland’s economically important metropolises, such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, have been efficient and resilient. Hong Kong and the mainland also have different priorities.

China has been calibrating for omicron outbreaks. Mild cases will no longer be sent to hospitals. The government even changed the threshold for a negative PCR test — raising the bar to come up positive — thereby allowing people to be discharged from quarantine facilities much faster. It has also approved the use of at-home and personal rapid antigen tests.

In the mainland, contact tracing is the first line of defense, whereas Hong Kong has largely relied on strict border controls and social distancing, including playground and school closures, to contain the virus. That means Chinese cities go into lockdowns a lot earlier during an outbreak but also come out much faster. Shenzhen, a city of 17 million, went in and out in a week after reporting just 66 new coronavirus cases. It has lifted restrictions, with the government saying the virus had come under control. Apple Inc. supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., also known as Foxconn, resumed operation in two plants after a shutdown of only two days.

Shanghai is the role model for a targeted, nimble Covid-zero response. The city has a team of around 3,000 people dedicated to identifying all close contacts. It employs the “2+12 days” approach: An apartment building can be locked down for two days because of a close contact, but its residents can roam around freely as soon as mass testing results come out negative.

By comparison, Hong Kong’s health system broke down in the face of omicron. Two months of a semi-lockdown set off an exodus as people realized the only certainty was that the city’s Covid policy would be inconsistent. Close to 50,000 left for temporary or permanent refuge abroad in the first half of March alone. No long-term and sustainable solutions have been presented or discussed. And what happens when the self-exiled residents return, presumably with the virus? There are also huge holes in Hong Kong’s policy: What rules regulate unvaccinated children, for example?

Other cities and countries are opening up completely, removing restrictions and leaving almost all Covid-19 measures in the past. On Monday, Indonesia, southeast Asia’s largest economy, said it was lifting all restrictions for tourists, throwing open its borders. Hong Kong can’t seem to see a path toward that kind of liberation.

This raises the question of when the mainland will be able to open to the rest of the world. Just like Hong Kong, its elderly are reluctant to get vaccinated. For those aged 80 and above, just over half have had two shots. It’s a narrow path forward, but China wants to be sure its hospitals are not overloaded with patients. Five local manufacturers have been licensed to produce a cheaper version of Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 drug, Paxlovid, an oral medication for the treatment of the disease that will cut down on hospitalization.

More importantly, China’s economy doesn’t need open borders or foreign visitors as much as Hong Kong’s. The mainland has focused on demand and supply within its borders, and its exports have been at a record high, thanks to pandemic-related demands for computer and medical equipment. While China’s supply chains have faced delays, they haven’t been severely disrupted. The industrial ecosystem has been honed to work with Covid closures over the past two years. That is all in keeping with China’s quest for stability.

Hong Kong’s priorities are different. It needs to rebuild its credibility and show that it can, in fact, lay out and execute effective, well-thought out rules to restore its fading global stature. It needs to reconnect with the world to remain Hong Kong. At this point, the next time it faces an outbreak, the city should take a page from its peers in Shanghai.


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