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A novel way of enforcing quarantine

Hong Kong, 25 August 2021: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It is one of 20th century literature’s most memorable quotes, penned by George Orwell in his classic 1945 novella Animal Farm. The book tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human owner with the aim of creating a fairer society. But (spoiler alert), they begin squabbling among themselves and the farm ends up even worse than it was before.

And so it goes that all travellers to Hong Kong are equal, but some travellers are more equal than others. Upon returning from Zurich a week ago, I was struck by the number of signs with passengers’ names being held up by waiting airport staff. These fortunate individuals, granted a Covid-19 quarantine exemption by our government, were duly tested and whisked through a designated channel to their waiting transport.

This administration’s coronavirus website – slogan: “Together, We Fight the Virus!” – details 12 categories of persons arriving from so-called Foreign Places who are exempted from compulsory quarantine. Aside from obvious ones such as aircraft and cargo ship crew, the list includes government officials carrying out governmental duties; senior officers in the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the Securities and Futures Commission and Insurance Authority; and top executives of listed companies, financial institutions and licensed corporations. As for travellers from the Mainland, Macau and Taiwan, there are no less than 36 exempted groups. According to government figures, more than 41,200 notifications of medical surveillance were issued to exempted individuals last month. Perhaps we’re not so “together” after all.

There’s no exemption category for celebrities, but – as the whole of Hong Kong knows by now – this proved no barrier to Hollywood star Nicole Kidman (and entourage), who recently flew in on a private jet to commence filming a drama series for Amazon and took up residence in an upmarket home on the Peak. She was subsequently seen shopping at a high-end fashion store in Central.

Cue outrage – howls of protest filling newspapers, airwaves and social media – among ordinary Hongkongers who are coping with the world’s strictest pandemic controls. Scrambling to limit the damage, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau insisted Ms Kidman had been given permission to carry out “designated professional work … conducive to maintaining the necessary operation and development of Hong Kong’s economy”. I guess it’s obvious, when you think about it.

Aside from clear issues regarding fairness and public health (Ms Kidman flew in from Sydney, currently gripped by a wave of Delta variant infections), you have to question – yet again – this administration’s political acumen and social sensitivity. The drama series in question, Expats, is about the lives of wealthy and glamorous foreigners in Hong Kong, which only adds to the perception of officials (and a movie star) wholly disconnected from everyday citizens. Honestly, who in our corridors of power considered all of this and decided it was a good idea?

Alas, no pampering for this traveller, now on Day 8 of hotel isolation. It’s not easy, of course, but I’m making the best of it and am happy to share Colin’s Quarantine Survival Guide:

  • Wake up early and shave, shower and get dressed as normal. Don’t slob around in pajamas all day.
  • Stay busy with work and schedule numerous video calls with colleagues, clients and friends. You retain a certain amount of social interaction and the day passes quicker.
  • Exercise regularly – I have a daily weights and stretching session via Zoom with my personal trainer and walk 10km each day (split into two 5km stints) doing laps of my room.
  • Only watch TV of an evening, limited to the news and one episode of a Netflix drama. No binge viewing.

Quarantine has also been something of an adventure. I’ve had to make my bed for the first time in decades and this morning was a steep learning curve as I changed the sheets. (Perhaps, after all, I’m well qualified for a role in Ms Kidman’s Expats.) Occasionally, people in hazmat suits knock on my door.

In the world outside, meanwhile, Hong Kong persists with its zero-Covid policy even as most of the planet understands (and as a friend remarked to me) this is akin to King Canute sitting on the beach and ordering the tide back out. Our city confirmed five new imported infections on Monday and seven yesterday, taking the cumulative total to 12,069, with 212 related fatalities. Almost 59% of the population have received at least their first dose of vaccine, although daily jabs and bookings are trending down.

Pressed by reporters yesterday about maintaining the goal of “zero infections” or opting to “live with the virus” and open up to the world, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was at her non-committal best: “We will keep on reviewing the situation, monitoring the vaccination [rate], and then [make] the best decision for the people of Hong Kong.” Stirring stuff. No such fence-sitting from Dr David Owens and Professor Ben Cowling, who see living with Covid-19 as the only long-term effective strategy. Their latest podcast is required listening.

In closing, I should highlight that my 14-day quarantine order expires at 11:59pm next Tuesday (31 August) and I don’t intend hanging around here a minute longer. Tests completed, paperwork done and protocols obeyed, I should be writing next week’s blog in the comfort of my office – all things being equal, of course.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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