Hong Kong, 1 March 2023: “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor,” observed ex-US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Certainly, the 150 students taking part in this weekend’s BC&C Inter-School Sailing Festival have navigated stormy waters these past three years. Covid-19 has brought class suspensions, online learning, separation from friends, cancellation of sports, constant mask-wearing and daily rapid tests. It has been a difficult time for everyone, especially young people.
Thankfully, we can relax. Only today, Hong Kong’s protracted, tiresome and wholly unscientific mask mandate – this city’s last major anti-pandemic restriction – has been lifted by our government. Finally! Many citizens are smiling. We know because we can see each other’s faces. And this welcome development, though long overdue, will make our annual regatta – returning for the first time since 2019 – even more special.
Some 15 schools will engage in two days of intense match racing off Middle Island. They have been training for months, with many of the participants learning to sail for the first time. Yours truly is joining them. Well, sort of. Together with dozens of our guests, I’ll be staying firmly on dry land and enjoying the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club’s excellent hospitality. We’re looking forward to a wonderful weekend.
These teenagers deserve their moment in the sun. Readers of this column know I’ve been highly critical of our government’s harmful anti-pandemic policies towards young people. This week, we’ve discovered that the number of children with speech-related problems rose significantly as mask-wearing became mandatory and schools were closed. Students were affected because they could not see how teachers moved their mouths. Some had problems hearing how words were pronounced. Generally, masked-up children spoke less.
According to the Department of Health, the number of youngsters under 12 newly diagnosed with speech problems, language delay or disorders increased from 4,300 in 2019 to 5,401 in 2021. Clinical psychologist Vivian Siu of the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society notes how children aged 2-6 are in a “golden training period” and those with various conditions need help immediately, not later when it requires more effort. In response, one enterprising primary school principal has engaged a speech therapist and arranged extended break periods to give students more time to mix. So, we can add speech development issues to juvenile myopia, weight-gain and mental health concerns. In summary, it seems school closures and constant masking are bad for children. Oh wow, who knew?
It’s possible, but unlikely, these are considerations in Chief Executive John Lee’s out-of-the-blue announcement ending the mask mandate. He insists the move – one day after health officials were still calling for caution – is logical and calculated: “It is because of the overall assessment and factors taken into account that I made the decision. I said two months ago that this was an issue that I would be actively monitoring.” Right.
Clearly, neighbouring Macau lifting its mask mandate two days ago – leaving Hong Kong alone in the region, perhaps even the world, as the last holdout – is pure coincidence. As is the return this weekend (for the first time since 2018) of this city’s biggest music festival, Clockenflap. John Lee’s scientific reasoning thus averts embarrassing images of masked concert-goers being beamed around the world so soon after launching his administration’s HK$100 million “Hello Hong Kong” campaign.
Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau hails his boss’s bold move as the “official end to all social distancing measures”. Er, not quite. Kindergarten and primary school students are required to take daily rapid tests for another two weeks. Naturally, children come last again. He also says dismantling the rule step by step – for example, keeping masks compulsory on public transport – was ruled out because it would be complicated, difficult to enforce and inconvenient for the public. Oh, the irony. On this note, one visitor with first-hand experience of our city’s painful pandemic policies is eminent London-based barrister Tim Owen KC. I invite you to tune in for our entertaining chat about politics, rule of law and his regular (if, too often, quarantine-ensnared) trips to Hong Kong.
While there is widespread relief that masks have officially gone, it is tinged with anger that we’ve had to wait so long. Dr David Owens, ever the voice of sanity, points out we’ve endured months of unscientific and unnecessary restrictions that have damaged public health and the economy while raising children in a culture of fear. But perhaps we should let legendary Covid chronicler Aaron Busch, AKA Tripperhead, deliver the definitive verdict on this saga: “The removal of a 950+ day mask mandate with a ‘we’re scrapping it in 17 hours’ is the perfect finale to what has been a nonsensical, aberrant, no roadmap three years of pandemic response in Hong Kong.”
True, but enough. We sail onwards – starting with our regatta this weekend – towards, hopefully, calmer seas.
Until next time, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins