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A measure to make the fur fly

Hong Kong, 20 April 2022: As if life isn’t tough enough for pets in Hong Kong – think cramped flats, lack of green space and high humidity – now our Covid-paranoid government is gunning for them. Animal rights activists are alarmed over toughened regulations which mean owners of pets can be locked up if they refuse to surrender them for disease control purposes.

Our city attracted global ridicule in January by culling 2,000 hamsters to contain a possible animal-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. Now, an amendment to the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance specifies that owners who ignore an order to give up their furry friend face up to six months in jail and HK$10,000 fine.

No need to fret, however, your pets will be perfectly safe with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. “You don’t have to worry too much, because even if we have coronavirus disease, the AFCD takes good care of pets like cats and dogs,” trilled Health Secretary Sophia Chan, insisting the aim was merely to control disease should evidence exist suggesting animal-to-human transmission. Still, she admitted, officers should explain the amended law more clearly. Yes, a suggestion to improve communication from the same Health Secretary who famously triggered panic buying in supermarkets by implying this city’s dreaded compulsory testing scheme would require a lockdown.

Talking sense, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stressed the risk of pets-to-human Covid-19 transmission in general was negligible. Animals were more likely to be infected by owners and did not play a role in spreading the virus. It suggested citizens who became infected or were sent to quarantine should ask a friend to take care of their pets rather than hand them over to the AFCD.

This animal angst is just another episode in The Twilight Zone of Hong Kong’s public health policies, to which we can add this week’s bit-part return to classes for some students. A minority of schools finally opened their doors yesterday after a three-month suspension, the latest in a series of closures which have disrupted three academic years and seriously infringed the rights of our children, as recently detailed by my colleague Alice Cabrelli.

Just 52 local primary schools and 65 international schools are back thus far, with the former given flexibility over when to return. Secondary schools will resume on 3 May but, like their primary counterparts, are limited to half-days unless 90% of all students on campus or in an individual class have received two vaccine doses. Kindergartens will resume in stages from 3-16 May. All students, irrespective of school or age, must return daily negative results from rapid antigen tests. This includes students with special needs, prompting one teacher at a school for the intellectually disabled to describe the new policy as “disconnected from reality”.

Continuing this theme, rigid social distancing rules which have been in place for months will be eased – only slightly, mind – from tomorrow as the so-called fifth wave of Covid-19 infections weakens. Citizens will be allowed the luxury of dining in a restaurant after 6:00pm while gyms, sports venues, cinemas and certain other public facilities will reopen. Further, the ban on private gatherings of more than two households is removed. Alas, there is no restoration of logic. Masks must be worn at all times, even for team sports, and they remain mandatory for strenuous outdoor exercise (contrary to advice from the World Health Organization) and even for hiking in the hills.

If certain residents are awaiting tomorrow with uncommon joy, then perhaps there is some substance in the notion they have developed Stockholm syndrome to cope with two-plus years of restrictions. Whatever the reason, we should not forget that our government’s response to the pandemic in recent months has been calamitous. Dr David Owens has compiled this compelling timeline of Hong Kong’s failed Covid-19 strategy and concludes: “One of the most important lessons to take forward from the last year is that ignoring evidence-based public policy decisions in favour of politics is very bad for public health.” Yet our leaders continue to do exactly this.

Former Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee is (sensibly) avoiding the topic as he compiles a support team of almost 150 political and business heavyweights and campaigns vigorously – why? – ahead of next month’s Chief Executive election. He is the only candidate. Apart from pledging to prioritise reopening the Mainland border, comments about travel restrictions and quarantine have been noticeably absent amid his promises of a “results-oriented” administration.

Perhaps Mr Lee believes the less he says, the lower our expectations, and he doesn’t want words coming back to haunt him. “Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustration. My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustration – and to unite our society to move forward.” So declared Carrie Lam, immediately after her election five years ago. We know how that turned out.

In any case, analysts believe the Chief Executive-elect’s huge and powerful team is intended to showcase unity in the pro-establishment camp. They are all behind him – for now. The vicious world of politics was summed up by former US President Harry Truman thus: “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.” Not in Hong Kong, though, not with Health Secretary Sophia Chan on its tail.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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