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A beastly beginning to the year

Hong Kong, 26 January 2022: It is decades since fearsome South China tigers stalked the hills of Hong Kong, yet they remain part of this city’s fascinating folklore. In 1915, one such beast killed two policemen sent to investigate its presence in Sheung Shui before it was shot several days later. Its mounted head is a prized exhibit at the Police Museum. Another big cat perished from a marksman’s bullet outside Stanley Civilian Internment Camp in 1942 during the Japanese occupation. Its skin is on display at the Tin Hau temple in Stanley.

Post-war, sightings of tigers here became rarer as they were hunted to the point of extinction north of the border before a Chinese government moratorium in 1977. These days, South China tigers exist only in captivity – around 100 of them in total, bred from a small pool – and the chances of them being reintroduced to the wild are slim. Hence, the only way you’ll spot the species in Hong Kong is on the many Chinese New Year decorations adorning our city as we herald the Year of the Tiger. We are looking forward to a three-day public holiday next week and I take this opportunity to wish you all peace and prosperity in the months ahead.

In Chinese culture, the tiger is king of all beasts while its zodiac sign is a symbol of strength and bravery. It appears we’ll be needing both these qualities, plus endless patience, as we stumble on in our fight against Covid-19. The Omicron-driven fifth wave of infections is upon us and, in less than a week, new daily cases have soared from single to triple digits. There are essentially four major clusters, the largest of these expanding at a Kwai Chung public housing estate where infections have been found in 12 of the 16 blocks, prompting authorities to place three of them under lockdown. Yet, despite our leaders having had months to prepare for such a situation, the scenes there are chaotic. Complaints have rained down from stranded residents: shoddy testing arrangements that cause them to queue for hours; government hotlines going unanswered; stinking garbage piling up in lift lobbies. The list goes on.

So Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to visit the estate on Sunday was hardly the smartest move. She was heckled from windows above – the comments are not repeatable here – and left after 15 minutes. That evening, she released a statement thanking residents for their cooperation and hoping “they understand the necessity of the operation”. Earlier, she had performed verbal gymnastics in a media briefing, insisting her administration’s much-hyped zero-Covid strategy was not “absolute zero” but “dynamic zero”. Reporters weren’t the only ones scratching their heads.

Carrie also helpfully highlighted the “very low” vaccination rate among our elderly (70% of citizens aged 80+ have yet to be jabbed) as a problem, but didn’t dwell on the fact her administration has had almost 11 months to fix it. In her inimitable mixed messaging way, she has since taken to dispensing with her mask when facing the media, so residents will “feel her emotions”. (Insert your own obvious joke here.)

The Chief Executive wisely left her underlings to explain the government’s decision to cull 2,000 hamsters after 11 of the rodents at a Causeway Bay pet store tested positive and the shop’s employee was confirmed to be infected. Cue scenes of distraught children handing back cute little mammals they had received as Christmas presents while the internet flooded with hamster memes. Dr Thomas Sit, Assistant Director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation (oh, the irony) Department, insisted authorities had “no choice” but to make a “firm decision” to protect public health.

It all means this city’s strict social distancing regulations – no dine-in at restaurants after 6:00pm and most public venues, including gyms and sports facilities, closed – will continue, probably for months. This week, secondary schools joined primary schools and kindergartens in shutting early for Chinese New Year; when they will return is anyone’s guess. Primary schools have been told they can resume classes if they meet a 70% vaccination rate among students and staff. A case of children being forced to do what the elderly will not. 

Omicron and predecessor Delta are running rampant in our community and health workers are playing catch-up with inadequate track-and-trace methods. There is no denying “dynamic zero” has repercussions: the Hong Kong Association of Banks is warning of a lack of skilled employees from overseas; the number of university students quitting their studies has jumped by a record 24%; prices of debentures issued by international schools have plummeted by as much as 40%. Bad news, as well, for Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui – it’s widely reported he will be sacked over Partygate. No such worries for the property sector, however. Realtors have today confirmed they are increasing staff bonuses following a year in which transactions soared 46% to HK$917 billion (US$117 billion), the highest since records began in 1996.

Amid this mayhem, some welcome perspective is once again provided by Dr David Owens and Professor Ben Cowling. In their latest podcast, they discuss the dilemma of zero-Covid without an exit plan and the costs of government policy on physical and mental health and, of course, hamsters. David has since posted a compelling blog – essential reading. Another voice of reason, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Siddharth Sridhar, summarises Hong Kong’s predicament in an eloquent Facebook post in which he observes the city is existing in a parallel zero-Covid reality and we should expect things to get worse before they get better.

Too true. As we flounder in Covid chaos, we desperately require leaders with authority, purpose and vision. Alas, like our legendary tigers, such figures have long since departed the Hong Kong landscape.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

37+ years of legal experience is just a click away.

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