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Coronavirus unity amid political division

Hong Kong, 15 July 2020: It appears Hong Kong’s battle against the coronavirus has entered its most critical stage with the so-called third wave of infections taking hold and triggering a return to strict social distancing measures. In the past nine days, our city has recorded 222 new locally transmitted cases and, worryingly, 78 of these have been of unknown origin.

Hong Kong catalogued 41 local infections on Monday, a record single-day rise, and this figure was matched yesterday when there were also eight imported cases. There are fears of an outbreak at one of our public hospitals, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kowloon, after three patients on the same general ward were confirmed to have the coronavirus. Care homes are another point of concern after dozens of staff and residents at a facility in Tsz Wan Shan tested positive last week.

It means the total number of cases in Hong Kong now stands at 1,569 with eight related fatalities. While the recent increase is alarming, I should stress that infections still account for just 0.02% of our population, a remarkably low figure compared with other jurisdictions. Hong Kong residents have largely embraced the concept of mask wearing since day one and have been generally diligent in observing strict hygiene regulations and social distancing requirements. This spirit of co-operation has undoubtedly kept the infection rate low. Health officials have always warned there would be further community outbreaks, it is a question of how we react to them.

As result of the spike in cases, the authorities have drastically tightened social-distancing rules starting from today, including the banning of dine-in services at restaurants between 6:00pm and 5:00am while day-time diners are limited to four per table. For the first time, wearing a mask on public transport has become mandatory, with offenders facing a HK$5,000 (US$645) fine. Many other public venues, including bars, gyms and karaoke lounges, are again closed and the limit on public gatherings is back down to four.

Of course, while Covid-19 dominates our daily lives, Hong Kong’s new national security law continues to stir lively debate. The latest major talking point is last weekend’s election primary held by opposition parties which attracted a significant turnout of 610,000 voters. The unofficial poll was held to determine who should represent the opposition to run against pro-government candidates in September’s Legislative Council elections. The opposition bloc is seeking a majority in LegCo.

Beijing, of course, is highly unimpressed, accusing poll organiser and long-time activist Benny Tai of “unlawful manipulation” of Hong Kong elections, mounting a “blatant challenge against the Basic Law and national security law” and acting as a political agent for foreign forces. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has suggested the poll amounts to subversion of state power. Benny Tai insists he has done nothing wrong other than allowing 610,000 people to express their views peacefully through voting. He also points out that legislators have constitutional power under the Basic Law to veto the budget and hold the government accountable. We await further developments.

Whatever your political views, it is reasonable to say Hong Kong people are united in their desire to prevail in this protracted battle with Covid-19. I hope to bring you brighter news in the coming weeks.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins