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Home comforts amid global chaos

Hong Kong, 14 October 2020: As we head deep into the fourth quarter of a year blighted by Covid-19 – a pandemic which, for Hong Kong residents, has followed hard on the heels of months of civil unrest – it can be difficult to focus on the positives. We are all suffering coronavirus fatigue and yearning for the chance to travel freely. Many people have lost their jobs or been furloughed, some have seen their businesses closed. Education has been badly disrupted, financial hardship is prevalent.

A quick examination of the devastation overseas, however, should be enough to remind us how fortunate we are. Certain cities are back under full or partial lockdown, or their residents are at least subject to the strictest social distancing rules; Covid-19 cases and related fatalities continue to soar; and, in some countries, governments are struggling to keep a lid on the chaos.

In the US, the coronavirus has infected one in 42 individuals and the death rate is somewhere around one in 1,520 people. In the UK, where the government is ceding certain control measures to local authorities, these figures are one in 104 and one in 1,546. Of course, testing rates vary greatly in different jurisdictions and there is a distinction to be drawn between someone dying of coronavirus or with coronavirus, so the numbers are open to interpretation. But there is no denying the comparison with Hong Kong, where the virus has infected roughly one in 1,430 people and the fatality rate is one in almost 71,000.

Hong Kong recorded eight new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing the city’s total to 5,201 with 105 related deaths. We are told to expect just a handful of new cases today. Social distancing rules, including mandatory mask wearing outdoors except when exercising, a four-person limit on public gatherings and no more than four people per table in restaurants, seem set to remain in force for at least another week. In observing these regulations, Hong Kong residents are generally behaving impeccably. Perhaps it is a sign of our city’s success that certain media outlets are scrambling for more impactful stories. Certainly, a prominent article on Sunday claiming we might face tens of thousands more Covid-19 infections and up to 1,000 deaths this winter did not appear to be based on exact science and was most unhelpful.

Of course, Hong Kong’s success in controlling the virus has come at huge economic cost, hence we were looking forward to our Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s annual policy address, due to be delivered today, for a recovery blueprint. However, on Monday, she abruptly postponed her speech until the end of November, saying she needed to attend meetings in Beijing later this month that would help crystalise her strategy for Hong Kong’s economic resurgence and ensure the central government’s full support. Instead, she is spending today in Shenzhen, where President Xi Jinping is visiting for the 40th anniversary celebrations of that city’s establishment as a special economic zone.

Delaying the policy address for the first time in Hong Kong’s history has inevitably attracted criticism from opposition figures that the Chief Executive is belittling her most important speech of the year. I use the term “opposition figures” as a collective, given the glaring absence of a figurehead, or unifying force, in the pan-democratic camp capable of holding the government accountable and offering forensic, constructive counter-arguments. I mention this in passing as a notable and puzzling aspect of Hong Kong politics.

Whatever the merits of her decision, what Ms Lam has most certainly done is ramp up the pressure on herself to produce meaningful policies when she does finally speak. Vague promises about opportunities presented by the Greater Bay Area innovation hub or pledging to amend the law to allow Hongkongers living in China to vote in our city’s elections will not suffice, not when the coronavirus has exacerbated long-standing problems regarding affordable housing, education, healthcare and social welfare.

Everyone is back at work today after an unexpected Tuesday off due to the distant Tropical Storm Nangka, which caused the Hong Kong Observatory to issue the No.8 typhoon signal for 14 hours yesterday despite much of the city being barely affected. Nangka delivered a damp squib, the onus is on Ms Lam to do otherwise.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins