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Leading us a walk on the wild side

Hong Kong, 9 March 2022: Hiking in Hong Kong brings you closer to nature. This city offers diverse flora and fauna, not to mention a vast range of exotic wildlife. Porcupines, civet cats, wild boar, snakes, monkeys and more, we see them all on our regular outings with the Stumblers.

I didn’t need my walking boots this morning – only my TV screen – to spy that rarest of creatures, the Lesser Spotted Chief Executive, giving her first press conference in more than two weeks. With our city gripped by a desperate public health crisis in which new Covid-19 infections are in the tens of thousands and hundreds of citizens are dying each day, Carrie Lam finally came out to face reporters.

Today’s belated appearance arrived shortly after Vice-Premier Han Zheng, Beijing’s highest-ranking official overseeing Hong Kong affairs, demanded stronger and more decisive pandemic leadership from the local authorities. In particular, he urged effective measures to reduce this city’s sky-high death rate and prioritise care for the elderly. You can only imagine the private phone calls between the capital and Government House. “Get a grip!” may have been the gist of them.

About time, too. We have endured months of government incompetence – comprising unfathomable strategy, ad hoc policies, constant flip-flopping and mixed messaging – during which weary citizens have been at the mercy of rumour and hearsay. We have been drip-fed information via ministers’ blogs, radio interviews, newspaper reports quoting unnamed sources or citizens recording their own experiences via social media. It’s mentally, physically and financially draining.

And so, our leader – noticeably less self-assured this morning and keeping her mask on, having famously removed it at previous media briefings to let residents “feel her emotions” – is at long last promising to actually lead. Here are the takeaways:

  • She will assume a more active role in pandemic messaging and conduct a press conference every day – “we hope to clear up rumours or misunderstandings”.
  • The compulsory universal testing drive slated for this month is being postponed while the government concentrates on reducing severe infections, although it is definitely on the cards and dates will be announced in due course.
  • More than 9,000 public hospital beds, half of the city’s total, will be used for Covid-19 patients, and this will include Queen Elizabeth Hospital being converted into a designated centre for Covid-19 patients.
  • All elderly residents at nursing homes will be given their first vaccine dose within two weeks.

The Chief Executive also said she was saddened by the deaths of many citizens infected during the current Omicron-fuelled outbreak. Saddened? The reaction of this writer is one of righteous anger. On 27 January, explaining why her government would not ease social distancing restrictions, she remarked: “I could not stand seeing a lot of old people dying in my hospitals.” At the time, our city had listed 213 fatalities as Covid-related since the beginning of the pandemic, a remarkably low figure. However, for almost a year, concerned family health practitioners and epidemiologists had been waving red flags about the dismally low vaccination rate among senior citizens. We were heading for catastrophe, they warned, time and time again.

In the six weeks since Carrie’s comments, some 2,365 residents – mostly elderly and unvaccinated – have died from coronavirus complications. This city now has the world’s highest Covid fatality rate, according to online database Our World in Data. We have a seven-day rolling average of 29.18 new deaths per one million people, well over double the 13.24 figure of second-placed Mauritius. Our city’s mortuaries are so overwhelmed they’re deploying refrigerated shipping containers to store bodies.

Not only are these deaths tragic, many of them have been preventable. From the outset, there was the glaring failure to properly prioritise senior and vulnerable citizens when Hong Kong’s mass vaccination programme commenced in late February 2021. Suggestions to be proactive and send jab teams into care homes were ignored. Ambiguous public health messaging which failed to address vaccine hesitancy – amplified by media scare stories about jab side-effects – exacerbated the issue. A golden chance to boost take-up by tying the HK$36 billion (US$4.6 billion) digital consumption e-voucher scheme to inoculation was passed up.

Most damningly, our government failed to incentivise vaccination by making life easier for those good citizens who got their jabs. No vaccine pass system for entry to restaurants, gyms, cinemas or other public facilities. Quarantine and social distancing restrictions were applied equally to all, irrespective of vaccination status. Close contact of someone who’s tested positive? Off you went to Penny’s Bay, jabbed or not. And then, towards the end of last year, with the programme almost stalled and complacency rife due to low infections in the community, some vaccination centres were shut down. I rest my case.

On to more pleasant matters. If all this doom and gloom leaves you in need of some levity, look no further than Mike Rowse, former Director-General of InvestHK and someone who always sees the lighter side of life. He was my latest guest on our Law & More podcast, bringing sound acumen and a host of amusing anecdotes to proceedings. His description of the current administration – “Hopeless!” – is a good example of his forthright views.

An ex-civil servant with insight, humour and candour? It can only be another one of Hong Kong’s endangered species.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

37+ years of legal experience is just a click away.

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