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Pandemic response impacting children

By Alice Cabrelli

Hong Kong, 11 April 2022: A disturbing video clip of plainclothes Hong Kong police officers forcibly subduing and arresting a 15-year-old went viral recently. The teenager and his younger brother had been playing basketball on a public court in Wong Tai Sin which was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions when they were intercepted. Police later stated he had assaulted an officer whose colleagues “had no choice but to respond with appropriate and proportionate force”.

Whatever the specifics of the incident, it further highlighted the plight of children and young people whose development has been significantly hampered by Hong Kong’s pandemic response.

First and foremost, the last three academic years have been badly disrupted. Before Covid-19, some schools closed due to the civic unrest which rocked Hong Kong in the second half of 2019. In the calendar year 2020, students spent less than 20 weeks at school; multiple interruptions continued in 2021 and now local school summer holidays have been brought forward. Schools remain closed until 19 April at the earliest and, even after reopening, will be limited to half-day classes unless they achieve a 90% vaccination rate.

Further conditions regarding resuming classes have been unveiled today (11 April), with Director of Health Dr Ronald Lam announcing the Centre for Health Protection will “investigate” if 5% of a school tests positive and, if this rises to 10%, the CHP “will take action”, although he did not specify what this would entail.

Yet, at the same time, Dr Lam conceded that prolonged school closures may have a life-long impact on children and that both the World Health Organization and Unicef had strongly advised classes should resume. He confirmed that global figures showed Covid-19 was not as risky in children and that lack of school activity was bad for mental health.

Not only is children’s education suffering damage but their social development is compromised. Instances of myopia, weight gain, hyperactivity and inattention are all too common. The territory-wide closure of sports and leisure facilities, playgrounds and beaches has denied children further chance of interaction with peers and a vital outlet for their energy.

In addition, our public hospital policies have brought Hong Kong unfavourable international attention. Last week, the mental health charity Mind Hong Kong estimated that up to 2,000 children under the age of 10 may have been separated from their parents over the previous six weeks after being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. The group’s Executive Chair, Dr Lucy Lord, was unequivocal: “This is child abuse on any level.”

In one widely publicised case, a 32-year-old British mother was separated from her 11-month-old daughter who was admitted to Queen Mary Hospital after testing positive. Such incidents prompted the US government to issue a warning against travelling to the city while the UK and Australian consulates in Hong Kong raised their concerns in official statements. Thankfully, the Hospital Authority have since announced that parents, regardless of their Covid status, will be allowed to accompany their Covid-positive children in hospital.

Yet, amid these restrictions,  children and their parents have been responsible citizens. Astonishingly, as of today (11 April), children aged 3-11 have a higher first jab percentage (62%) than citizens aged 80 and over (59%). Those aged 12-19 have achieved a 96% first dose rate.

It is worth remembering that Hong Kong has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1994. The four main pillars of this landmark Convention are:

  • Survival: The right to clean drinking water, nutrition, healthcare and a place to live.
  • Protection: From physical violence, psychological intimidation, war, smuggling, kidnapping, sexual abuse and exploitation.
  • Development: The right to education and access to information, the chance to enhance physical and mental abilities, the right to play and to enjoy cultural activities.
  • Participation: Freedom of expression, views and opinions, with children’s voices to be considered in line with their age and maturity.

Why is the Convention so important? Children start life as totally dependent beings who rely on adults for protection, nurturing and guidance. The actions or inactions of government impact children more strongly than any other group. The healthy development of children is crucial to the future well-being of any society.

The Convention is not incorporated directly into Hong Kong law, which means our government is not forced to comply. There is no children’s commissioner or government official with singular responsibility for children’s rights. That said, there are a number of Ordinances which are intended, or include provisions, to enhance the rights of children and protect them from abuse and exploitation. Various agencies, including the Social Welfare Department, police and NGOs, are involved in enforcement and regulation.

However, the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights – an independent group which, among several objectives, lobbies for a comprehensive Child Ordinance – concludes there is a lack of general legislation providing for the best interests of the child in Hong Kong. It had been hoped that the long awaited Children Proceedings (Parental Responsibility) Bill would be a leap forward, but the government announced in 2018 that implementation of the draft legislation would be delayed.

The government in 2018 established the Commission on Children, chaired by the Chief Secretary for Administration, to “address the diversified issues related to children”. At the most recent meeting in November 2021, Commission members were briefed about a five-year plan to transform public play spaces, efforts to combat bullying in schools and funding for NGOs to promote young people’s development. Yet the elephant in the room, the lengthy closures of schools and leisure facilities, was seemingly ignored.

In conclusion, it is clear that Hong Kong requires a specific children’s law that would provide for the best interests of the child. In the absence of this, the onus is on our government to prioritise children’s wellbeing and plot a road map out of this pandemic. It is hoped that the government will follow through on the proposal of creating a Commissioner for Children as mentioned in the Chief Executive’s 2021 policy address.

Alice Cabrelli joined BC&C in 2012 and has been a Partner since early 2021. Her key areas of practice include Family Law, Divorce and Separation, Child Custody and Financial Applications, and Civil and Commercial Litigation. She can be contacted at alice@boasecohencollins.com.

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