Hong Kong, 29 December 2021: Put on your face mask, check your temperature and use the LeaveHomeSafe app. Then, with health protocols duly observed, please join my whistle-stop tour of 2021 …
January: Are we learning our lessons? No. Hong Kong’s schools and universities stay closed, this after students have spent less than 20 weeks in class the previous year. At least health officials can duck awkward questions since daily media briefings are moved online, but only for 24 hours before howls of protest see this bright idea scrapped. Another week, another U-turn as our government cancels flower fairs for the forthcoming Lunar New Year and then reinstates them. Isn’t life rosy?
February: A shot in the arm for Chief Executive Carrie Lam as she kickstarts our city’s vaccination drive with a photo-op dose of Sinovac. This after government medical experts recommend use of the Mainland-made jab despite lack of scientific data, although panel head Professor Wallace Lau denies political pressure. Some citizens are reluctant to be tested, let alone inoculated, dodging medical personnel carrying out “ambush-style” lockdowns and mandatory screenings. Irate officials warn police will force entry into flats of recalcitrant residents. Home is where the heat is.
March: A tragicomedy at West Kowloon Court as 47 activists charged with subversion apply for bail. The marathon four-day hearing sees those in the dock go sleepless and hungry while four end up in hospital with exhaustion. The Judiciary claims mitigating circumstances and promises a review. Eleven defendants are finally released to await trial. Chaos, as well, at our vaccination centres as BioNTech jabs are suspended over suspect packaging. For programme chief Patrick Nip, it’s life at the sharp end.
April: Whither our pan-democratic legislators? They are now locked up, in exile or cast into the political wilderness by Beijing’s electoral reforms which include sweeping changes to an expanded Legislative Council and a turbo-charged Election Committee. It’s all happening under the banner of “patriots governing Hong Kong”. At least our vaccination roll-out is back on track with BioNTech jabs resuming. And good news for citizens with a double dose: our government announces a travel bubble with Singapore will start next month.
May: No it won’t. The bubble bursts due to rising infection rates in the Lion City. But the dismay of citizens seeking a quarantine-free trip is nothing compared to that of our domestic helpers who are singled out for two rounds of mandatory testing. Strangely, their employers are not. Discrimination in Hong Kong? Never! Also, all helpers will need to be vaccinated before having their contracts renewed, says our government, which then – U-turn ahoy! – scraps the idea after an outcry.
June: Our vaccination rate surges as the business sector offers HK$113 million worth of incentives to get jabbed. But no amount of largesse can cover up our Covid limbo: low infection numbers, vaccine hesitancy and no sign of our borders reopening. Time for decisive action: this writer departs to the UK for a month of sport. My reward is watching England’s footballers record a rare win over Germany. My punishment comes when Hong Kong announces direct flights from Britain have been kicked into touch.
July: What social distancing? I’m one of 70,000 fans at Wembley to watch England lose the Euro 2020 final (of course), then mix with 140,000 spectators at the British Grand Prix as the UK returns to some semblance of normality. It’s much the same in Switzerland, where I decamp for my three-week “washout”. Hiking and biking in the great outdoors. Hong Kong seems a world away.
August: Yours truly extends his stay in Switzerland after our leaders announce their much-trumpeted-then-delayed plan for antibodies tests at Hong Kong airport – produce a positive result and have your 14-day quarantine halved – will finally be implemented on 18 August. Of course, the plan is shelved. In fact, I scramble on a flight before Switzerland is added to the “high risk” list. “We do not want to reverse our decisions on a frequent basis,” says Carrie, while doing exactly that. Work and exercise keep me busy during 14 days locked up in a Causeway Bay hotel. Then, with a single bound, he is free!
September: The new school year starts without any local learning institutes returning to full-day classes due to Education Bureau vaccination rules. Not content with failing our youth, the government angers a fair portion of this city’s elderly with a flawed roll-out of its digital consumption e-voucher programme. Hundreds of anxious senior citizens swamp the scheme’s sole administrative office. At least the polls to choose the all-powerful Election Committee will go smoothly. Er, no. Delays in the delivery of ballot boxes and vote counting mean a long wait for results. You had one job …
October: After three senior Beijing officials, including Vice Premier Han Zheng, make pointed comments about Hong Kong’s shocking housing shortage, Carrie Lam delivers her much-anticipated policy address and promises to do something about Hong Kong’s shocking housing shortage. A light bulb moment. She will create a new northern metropolis, close to the mainland border, covering 300 sq km and accommodating 2.5 million people. It will also include up to seven border crossing points. Right now, of course, we don’t need any.
November: The LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app becomes mandatory for entry to all government buildings, then three civil servants are arrested for using a fake version as they go to work. Next, some 130 Cathay Pacific aircrew are whisked off to government quarantine facilities for 21 days after three cargo pilots test positive for Covid upon returning from Frankfurt. Any more bad news? Yes, the Hong Kong Sevens rugby showcase is postponed for the fifth time and will now be held in November 2022. No, really, it will.
December: Election fever doesn’t grip Hong Kong as almost 70% of voters abstain from the revamped Legislative Council polls in which pro-establishment candidates win 89 of 90 seats. Covid’s Omicron variant has our city battening down the hatches further – if this is possible – with even stricter quarantine measures, although citizens returning from the Mainland remain exempted. We finish 2021 as we started: zero Covid, zero sign of the border reopening and zero exit plan. Are we learning our lessons?
Happy New Year, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins