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An unwelcome dose of realism

Hong Kong, 9 December 2020: Let’s talk about vaccines, even if our government doesn’t want to. The UK yesterday became the first country to administer doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. (My parents, who are considered to be in a high risk category, are expecting to receive their shots next week.) Canada is poised to begin vaccinating citizens within days. US President-elect Joe Biden has set a goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office. Germany is planning to inoculate 10 million people in the first quarter of 2021. Closer to home, South Korea’s government has signed deals to immunise a total of 44 million people.

And Hong Kong? “If we are lucky, by the third quarter of next year we will start seeing the first batches of vaccines arrive, and I believe by around 2022, the chance for all Hongkongers to be vaccinated should be quite high,” says Professor David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert at Chinese University and government adviser on the pandemic. As we deal with the so-called fourth wave of Covid-19 cases and knuckle down under the city’s toughest social distancing rules thus far, this is not what we want to hear. 

While nations around the world are in a keenly contested race to procure vaccines, Hong Kong is barely out of the starting blocks. The UK is using the vaccine unveiled to great fanfare by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer/BioNTech last month. Final trial results have also been announced for two more vaccine candidates from Oxford University/AstraZeneca and Moderna. Various others are in late stages of trials. China is reported to have at least five vaccines being tested in more than a dozen countries, although it has already given experimental shots to swathes of healthcare workers under emergency measures. Last Friday, leading mainland scientist Wang Junzhi told a media briefing in Wuhan the country would have 600 million doses ready for market this year and would make “a major announcement” soon.

Our government, meanwhile, has been mostly silent. In her policy address two weeks ago, Chief Executive Carrie Lam promised Beijing would set aside “a certain amount of vaccines developed or produced in the mainland for use by Hong Kong people when necessary”, but didn’t elaborate. Health Secretary Sophia Chan said last week the administration had set aside funds to purchase enough vaccines for twice our city’s population of 7.45 million and that the supplies were expected sometime next year. Again, no further details. I believe the lack of clarity on this topic is cause for concern.

The latest anti-virus measures in Hong Kong are unlikely to lift this gloom, with some citizens facing the prospect of a lockdown for the first time since the pandemic began. A new law empowers the authorities to shut down parts of the city for up to seven days, during which time affected residents are required to undergo mandatory tests. Non-compliance can result in a maximum of HK$25,000 in fines and six months’ imprisonment.

From tomorrow, restaurants – already limited to just two people per table – must once again suspend dine-in services between 6:00pm and 5:00am. Gyms, sports premises and beauty parlours will also close, thus joining various other venues, including bars and pubs, which are already off limits. Like many, I find the shutting of gyms unfathomable, especially since they are not a source of clusters in this current wave. We need exercise for our physical and mental wellbeing and fitness centres, with regular cleaning of equipment and other strict hygiene protocols, are among the safest venues in town.

Health authorities confirmed 100 new cases yesterday, taking our city’s total to 7,075 – around .095% of the population – for the year to date, with 112 related deaths. We are told to expect more than 100 new infections today. As before, I do feel the need to stress Covid-19 is infecting only a tiny fraction of our population and the symptoms are mild in the vast majority of cases.

Our Chief Executive has also advised residents to stay home if possible, even for work, and avoid social activities. At the risk of incurring her displeasure, this particular resident is taking grandson Nathan and his friend Ethan walking and exploring on Peng Chau Island today. With no vaccines in sight for Hong Kong, a day in the great outdoors is the perfect shot in the arm.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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