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New wave, same old problem

Hong Kong, 9 February 2022: “It’s the economy, stupid!” US presidential hopeful Bill Clinton had this sign hanging in his campaign headquarters in 1992. The country was in an economic recession and President George Bush Snr was perceived as out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans. Clinton hammered home his promise of economic recovery at every opportunity, the public bought into it and he swept into the White House.

Admittedly, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam possesses little of Slick Willie’s charisma or political nous but she would do well to understand his ability to focus on the core issue. Substitute “economy” with “elderly” and her task in steering Hong Kong towards the Covid-19 exit door becomes rather more straightforward. Almost one year into this city’s vaccination programme a paltry 32% of citizens aged 80+ have received at least one jab. For those aged 70-79, the rate improves to 61%, but is still nowhere near satisfactory. Incredibly, just 22% of Hong Kong’s 60,000 care home residents are fully inoculated.

The reasons for these derisory figures include incoherent public health messaging, complacency as “dynamic zero-Covid” has – until recently – kept case numbers remarkably low, cultural issues and, most glaringly, flawed government policy. Prioritise vaccinating the elderly at the outset? No. Implement a vaccine pass early in order to “encourage” a high take-up rate? No. Tie the much-trumpeted HK$36 billion (US$4.6 billion) digital consumption e-voucher scheme to inoculation? No.

In a blog penned more than four months ago, Dr David Owens outlined what should be Hong Kong’s public health priorities:

  1. Increasing vaccine uptake in the old and vulnerable.
  2. Increasing vaccine uptake in the old and vulnerable.
  3. Increasing vaccine uptake in the old and vulnerable.

It appears no one was listening. And so, here we are. Having gone months without a case in the community (the small numbers recorded each day were always classed as imported), we have rocketed to some 1,160 new infections today, almost double the number reported yesterday. Hong Kong’s Omicron-fuelled outbreak is exponential and, for all their fighting talk about a “race against time” and “no surrender”, our leaders are powerless to stop it. Suddenly, almost as if taken by surprise, they must try to protect the significant number of elderly and vulnerable citizens who remain unvaccinated.

We have been anticipating this surge for months. Are we ready? Clearly not. It is reported public hospitals are being overwhelmed with asymptomatic cases, with some new patients waiting in outdoor holding areas for up to 16 hours before being admitted. Medical workers are showing “signs of exhaustion”. Citizens have also snapped up rapid antigen test kits and flocked to hospitals if they are positive, rather than staying home to await instructions. Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association President Dr Tony Ling has described the authorities’ communication with the public as confusing. Where have we heard this before?

A bizarre new policy, announced on Monday, of isolating patients with mild or no symptoms in quarantine facilities – Penny’s Bay, for example – is obviously unsustainable with a daily case count in four digits. Yet, in reality, the figure for new infections is irrelevant, what really matters is the number of fully vaccinated citizens who are so sick they require hospital treatment. We are not given this information.

Amid the chaos, our Chief Executive has unveiled this city’s strictest social distancing rules to date, beginning tomorrow, including an unprecedented ban on private gatherings of more than two households. The cap on public gatherings is reduced to two people (although families are exempted); the much-anticipated vaccine pass due to be implemented on 24 February (after Carrie postponed it for three weeks) will be extended to shopping centres, department stores, supermarkets and wet markets; in-restaurant dining, already forbidden after 6:00pm, will be restricted to two people per table in most places. Of course, many venues, including gyms and sports facilities, have been closed for the past month and our schools remain shut.

However, as University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Professor Ben Cowling points out, these measures alone are not enough to halt Omicron. He, too, is stressing the need to push vaccination among the over 70s. Our government, in truth, appears to be firefighting each new Covid crisis rather than implementing a logical long-term strategy. Former Hospital Authority Chief Executive Dr Leung Pak-yin has today urged Carrie & Co to work out more “realistic” public health policies.

The pandemic continues to pummel our economy and is hitting the underprivileged hardest. To highlight this, a survey released on Sunday by the Society for Community Organization revealed two-thirds of citizens living below the poverty line had at least one family member who had lost a job due to the effects of Covid-19 on the economy. Three-quarters of those interviewed said their household income had shrunk over the past two years. Yet the government’s poverty figures are seriously flawed, according to Victor Apps, my latest guest on our Law & More podcast. Victor, Chairman of the Business and Professionals Federation of Hong Kong and formerly a senior insurance executive, also takes a dim view of the current Mandatory Provident Fund arrangements. His views are well worth hearing.

In closing, I should draw a line under Partygate. The official investigation into Witman Hung’s infamous birthday bash ended with just one of the 13 senior officials who attended, Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui, losing his job. The report submitted to Carrie has not been published (of course). Poor Caspar now knows that it takes a special kind of talent to emerge unscathed from a scandal. Just ask our old friend Slick Willie.

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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