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A failure to see the bigger picture

Hong Kong, 1 September 2021: The new school year has officially started today. Hundreds of thousands of eager students returning to classes, meeting old friends and making new ones, embracing the joys of learning and benefiting from the myriad educational, social and physical activities that schools offer and which are essential for their growth and development.

But it’s an occasion tinged with regret and, in this quarter, anger. None of Hong Kong’s local (as opposed to international) schools are back to full-day classes due to this administration’s ongoing pandemic paranoia. The Education Bureau has stipulated that schools can only resume full-day learning if at least 70% of pupils and teachers are fully vaccinated, a threshold suggested by government health advisers.

This requirement immediately rules out primary schools and kindergartens, as our city only allows children aged 12 or older to be vaccinated. Secondary schools, meanwhile, are struggling to meet the criteria. While most teachers and staff are inoculated against Covid-19, a significant number of students are not. According to official figures, just 56% of Hongkongers aged 12 to 19 have received at least one vaccine dose. This morning, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung admitted that not a single local school had applied to his department to hold full-day face-to-face classes.

Thus, Hong Kong students begin a third consecutive school year disrupted by our government’s risk-averse pandemic policies. This despite zero evidence that schools are a source of Covid-19 transmission. None of the four waves of infections which previously rippled through the territory featured clusters in academic institutions. Yet there is conclusive evidence that extended closures or, at best, half-day and limited-capacity classes – meaning a huge increase in online learning – have severely impacted students’ education and caused significant harm to their mental and physical health.

This week, researchers at Chinese University have published a study showing the percentage of Hong Kong children who develop nearsightedness has increased an estimated 2½ times during the pandemic – a “myopia boom” caused by being cooped up at home and staring at a computer screen. The study shows the average screentime to be almost seven hours per day, about four hours more than before Covid-19, while the average amount of time spent outdoors has dropped from 1.27 hours a day to just 24 minutes.

Are we surprised? Not in the least. Less than four months ago, Chinese University released the results of a poll which showed most young children have put on weight during the pandemic, the result of eating more and exercising less. Some 63% of parents said their children were heavier, of which 11% put the gains at 3kg or more. Just two weeks later, a University of Hong Kong poll of nearly 30,000 families revealed children were more prone to problems such as hyperactivity and inattention, with symptom scores 7.5% higher than they were before the pandemic. It also found children experienced diminished emotional and social functioning. Youngsters from single-parent or low-income families were more likely to develop psychosocial problems, according to the study.

While we’re nurturing a generation of overweight, hyperactive and short-sighted children, adults have suffered as well. The same HKU research found parents’ stress levels increased by 5.6% compared with their pre-pandemic scores. Separate research by Save the Children Hong Kong revealed three in four parents were more anxious, with poorer families particularly hard hit. About 30% of respondents said they lacked the technical skills required to support online classes. Some 89% of low-income parents said they felt increased anxiety. On this note, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that elevated parental stress is a risk factor for child abuse and domestic violence.

Of course, this blog writer knows all about being confined indoors and staring at a computer screen thanks to my 14-day quarantine, from which I was released in the early hours of this morning. In bidding a not-too-sad farewell to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Causeway Bay, I should highlight that the staff there were superb – friendly, efficient, supportive and sympathetic. They helped make my enforced stay bearable.

While I was absent in Europe and then isolated in Hong Kong, my colleague Lisa Wong generously filled my podcasting seat, hosting our latest edition of Law & More in which barristers Philip Dykes SC and Christina Tseng discuss the complex issue of surrogacy. You can listen to it here. In other “on air” news, I’m devastated to learn that Formula 1 is now off our TV screens in Hong Kong and other jurisdictions in the region with the closure of Fox Sports Asia (now owned by Disney). It’s a sorry situation which my good friend and FOX F1 pundit Matthew Marsh is hoping will be resolved soon. Aside from a mountain of legal matters on my first day back in the office, I’m trying to find out how I can watch this weekend’s Dutch Grand Prix.

A similar impasse continues in Hong Kong with regard to Covid-19. Low case numbers, a waning vaccination drive, mandatory mask wearing and effectively closed borders – the results of our government’s dogged “zero Covid” strategy. Chief Executive Carrie Lam told media yesterday that the city’s utmost priority is to control the Covid-19 situation and prevent imported cases from getting into the community so her government can restart travel in a gradual and orderly manner. This while much of the developed world moves on. Myopia, it seems, is affecting not only our students.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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