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Seeing out this so-called flu surge

Hong Kong, 15 February 2023: “PANNICK ON THE STREETS OF LONDON” – further proof that football fans have a devilish sense of humour. The words, a play on the lyrics of a 1980s pop hit, adorned a huge banner unveiled by Manchester City supporters at the weekend, days after their petrodollar-backed, mega-wealthy club was charged with serial breaches of accounting rules that could see it relegated from the Premier League. The club has responded by hiring the brilliant barrister, David Pannick KC, to plead its cause. I know David, having met him in Hong Kong, and can confirm City have signed a world-class defender. I will follow the case with interest.

If not quite panic, we do have a degree of anxiety on the streets of Hong Kong since sections of the media – and, consequently, some citizens – have swallowed our government’s dire warnings about guarding against winter flu, the threat of which is being used to justify enforced mask wearing. “When we can be sure that the winter flu surge has passed, we will actively consider cancelling the mask mandate,” Chief Executive John Lee assures us. Hmm, let’s check the dictionary. Surge, noun: 1) a strong, wavelike, forward movement, rush, or sweep; 2) a strong, swelling, wavelike volume or body of something; 3) a sudden, strong increase or burst. Whoa! Citizens must be dropping like flies and hospitals are surely swamped?

Er, no. The ever-diligent Surveillance Division of the Communicable Disease Branch of the Centre for Health Protection publishes a weekly report, the cheerily titled COVID-19 & Flu Express. According to the most recent edition: “The latest surveillance data showed that the overall seasonal influenza activity in Hong Kong remained low.” It says “influenza-like-illness” cases are accounting for less than 2.7% of private clinic consultations and a miniscule 0.08% of general out-patient clinic visits. The report notes a total of three outbreaks in institutions (typically schools or care homes) in a 10-day period, with 16 individuals affected. During this time, two people have been admitted to intensive care. This folks, is your winter flu surge.

Perhaps John Lee has been too busy starring on stage and screen to worry about minor matters such as facts. He is the figurehead for “Hello Hong Kong”, this city’s glitzy global promotional drive to entice tourists back after three years of self-imposed isolation. Officials are promising “the world’s biggest welcome ever” with 700,000 free air tickets, spending vouchers and special events, all announced in a spectacular launch ceremony at the Convention and Exhibition Centre. The initial phase of this campaign is costing HK$100 million (US$12.8 million). Phew!

First, let’s give our government credit for showing some initiative. And then politely ask if taxpayers’ money might have been spent more wisely. While agreeing with the campaign’s objectives, advertising gurus and media commentators are unimpressed with its content. Reactions include “terrible, vapid and empty”, “lacks emotional appeal”, “old school” and “uninspiring”. The supposed jewel in the campaign’s crown, a promotional video featuring the Chief Executive, is “embarrassingly bad in execution”, laments Kymechow creative agency director Chris Kyme. Ouch! All this after the previous administration’s botched “Relaunch Hong Kong” campaign – cost: a comparatively cheap HK$44 million – following the 2019 civil unrest.

Barely pausing for breath, John Lee has since attempted to drum up business in the Middle East with a whirlwind tour of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We are told officials from Hong Kong and the two countries have signed multiple documents signalling cooperation in technology, business, professional services and logistics. Next up for our leader will be countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. So far, so good, but what about traditional partners like the US and Europe? “A pure dive into emerging markets will not save Hong Kong from the US-China strategic competition and decoupling trends,” advises Natixis Bank economist Gary Ng.

Amid the protocols and politics, some old-fashioned acts of humanitarian kindness. Hong Kong is today sending HK$30 million worth of supplies – tents, clothing, blankets and medicine – to earthquake-devastated Turkey. Around 100 tonnes of goods donated by the public have already been delivered. A 59-strong rescue team from Hong Kong has pulled four survivors from the rubble since arriving in Turkey last Friday. While casting a critical eye over our government’s actions from the comfort of our homes and offices, it is worth acknowledging, occasionally, how fortunate we are.

A final note about masks. In Chengdu, China, a firm has made headlines by requiring job applicants to wear full face masks in interviews to avoid choosing candidates based on their appearance. Smart practice or cheap publicity stunt? Rest assured, we won’t be trying it at BC&C. Like most citizens, we are just waiting for our globetrotting Chief Executive to give the word that we no longer need to wear them.

This last, lingering, irritating anti-pandemic measure has no basis in science or rationality. Any barrister would, I submit m’lud, struggle to defend it. Time to ditch the masks. I doubt anyone will worry, let alone panic.

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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