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An ill wind continues to blow

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An ill wind continues to blow

Hong Kong, 19 August 2020: Hong Kong experienced its own kind of lockdown this morning – just for a few hours – as Typhoon Higos swept through the territory. The vast majority of residents stayed home, much of our transport system was suspended and most shops remained closed, as did the courts. At one point during the night the No.9 typhoon signal, the second strongest category of storm, was hoisted before Higos began moving away, allowing for life here to gradually return to normal.

Of course, what constitutes normal these days differs greatly from the last time we experienced a typhoon just over a year ago. We are beginning a fourth week of the strictest social distancing measures Hong Kong has seen since the coronavirus pandemic began, including mandatory mask wearing in outdoor public places, even while exercising, public gatherings of no more than two people, and a ban on dine-in services at restaurants between 6:00pm and 5:00am. During daytime opening hours, restaurants must operate at half capacity and no more than two people can eat at the same table. Some 14 different types of venues, including bars, gyms and sports facilities, remain closed. These measures will stay in force until Tuesday next week at least.

Hong Kong is expected to announce about 30 new Covid-19 cases this afternoon which, if confirmed, would mark our city’s 17th straight day of fewer than 100 daily infections. This would take the overall count to around 4,590 – approximately one in 1,623 people – with 71 related deaths.

In appealing for the public’s continued support and patience, health authorities have acknowledged “anti-epidemic fatigue” is starting to show. This is true, but it is not weariness with our restricted lifestyle that is leading us to question certain social distancing requirements, rather plain logic. The ban on evening dine-in services at restaurants is difficult to fathom. The virus disappears at 6:00pm? Understandably, there are calls from the F&B industry, much of which is facing financial ruin, for this rule to be relaxed. Similarly, the mandatory wearing of masks even while exercising seems excessive given that we wish our population to remain fit and healthy. Undercover police officers have been patrolling hill trails in the New Territories and issuing on-the-spot fines to hikers for not wearing a mask. You don’t need to be a criminal defence lawyer to ask whether this really is the most efficient use of police resources.

The government’s infection prevention strategy for certain types of high-risk workers also warrants scrutiny. It is well documented that dock workers are sleeping in cramped conditions in converted shipping containers, often using the same beds, one after another. Such places are hotbeds for the virus and, unsurprisingly, clusters have formed. Domestic helpers who are between contracts are forced to sleep in packed dormitories. Did we not learn from the migrant worker outbreaks in Singapore? Some of these boarding houses are not officially registered, making contact tracing even more difficult. Boase Cohen & Collins is a long-time provider of legal services to the Mission for Migrant Workers and for years we have argued the strict rules regarding the processing of helpers’ contracts should be more streamlined and free of red tape. Now these issues are coming home to roost.

We have seen how government exemptions from testing and quarantine for certain types of travellers, particularly air and sea crew, resulted in the virus spreading into the community before the loopholes were closed last month. We have also heard medical experts question the value of our government’s planned voluntary mass testing programme, to be carried out with the Mainland’s assistance. This project, by the way, appears to have been delayed until the end of this month.

Typhoon Higos is fast departing Hong Kong, Typhoon Covid is here to stay. We must learn to live with it and hope our leaders apply sound logic in getting us back to a more recognisable normal.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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