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Seeking a society fit for purpose

Hong Kong, 2 September 2020: Health has been uppermost in my mind in recent weeks. Not just mine, you understand, but that of the community as a whole as Covid-19 brings enforced restrictions that affect our physical and mental wellbeing. As readers of my travel blog will know, being grounded for almost six months has allowed me to go on a health kick, engage a personal trainer and lose some weight. A rigorous evening walk is now part of my routine. I’m certainly feeling the benefits of all this.

The government has recently made some welcome social distancing concessions with regard to the health of Hong Kong people. The requirement to wear a mask while exercising outdoors has been lifted and certain sports such as golf and tennis have recommenced. It is reported that gyms will reopen from this coming Friday although, regrettably, it seems anyone working out in them will be required to wear a mask. More still needs to be done, however. Serious consideration should be given to the reopening of public football pitches, community sports centres, playgrounds and other venues where people enjoy exercise and socialise with friends. Simply, Hong Kong needs to be active.

This appeal comes as the so-called third wave of coronavirus continues to dwindle. Our city confirmed 12 new cases yesterday, taking the official tally to 4,822, with related fatalities up to 92. We are told to expect just eight new infections today, the lowest since five new cases were reported on 3 July.

We are on the second day of our government’s Covid-19 mass testing programme, which is being carried out with large-scale assistance from the Mainland at 141 centres across the territory. The scheme is intended to last for a week, but may be extended by another if needed. The testing is free of charge and voluntary, with the Hospital Authority confirming that anyone who returns a positive result will be sent to government quarantine facilities. Some 126,000 residents took the test yesterday. So far, around 716,000 people – just less than 10% of the population – have signed up for it.

The programme has become highly politicised, with opposition figures and a health workers union calling for a boycott, much to the frustration of our Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who insists it is people’s civic duty to be tested and they should do so “for themselves and their loved ones”. But should anyone be surprised the programme has engendered such a lukewarm response? With our society deeply polarised by last year’s civil unrest and the ensuing national security law, asking the public to be united behind a common cause is optimistic, to say the least.

Since I last wrote, it has been confirmed our schools will begin returning to classes on 23 September. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. Online learning is failing our young people – it is simply no substitute for the classroom environment – and is even harder for disadvantaged students. The Society for Community Organisation has released the results of a survey showing some 40% of children from low-income families don’t have a computer at home. Others don’t live in an environment conducive to online learning and then there are issues regarding pupils’ mental health and deterioration of eyesight. The sooner we get all our children back to school, and keep them there, the better.

Staying on this topic, I’m concerned for tertiary students. Having studied law as a young man and now acting as an honorary lecturer at the University of Hong Kong and external examiner, I know the subject requires face-to-face interaction with tutors, debate with fellow students and collective effort in study groups and team projects. Online learning is hampering high-performing scholars and causing struggling students to fall further behind.

But I should end on a bright note. Among the social distancing measures to be eased on Friday, it appears dining in at restaurants is to be extended one hour to 10:00pm. Perhaps, in these troubled times, we should be grateful for small mercies.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins