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Senior citizens rocked by digital disarray

Hong Kong, 8 September 2021: Hongkongers of a certain vintage fondly recall Below the Lion Rock, a classic TV drama series that first aired in 1972. It depicted the lives of working people living in the public housing estates and cramped villages in the shadow of the eponymous 495m-high mountain which dominates the Kowloon skyline. From this comes the term “Lion Rock spirit”, capturing the core values of Hongkongers – industrious, persevering and optimistic – which have transformed this city from barren rock to global financial powerhouse.

Those same early viewers are now well into their 60s and beyond and their famous resolve has been severely tested by the flawed roll-out of Hong Kong’s much-trumpeted digital consumption e-voucher scheme. The HK$36 billion (US$4.6 billion) programme, intended to boost spending and accelerate this city’s economic recovery amid Covid-19, offers every adult resident HK$5,000 (US$643) in local spending vouchers, with about 7.2 million people eligible. To join in, they must sign up with one of four e-payment operators: Octopus, AlipayHK, WeChat Pay HK or Tap&Go.

Great idea, I’m all for it. Except many older residents are hardly familiar with the idea of a cashless society, so opted for paper registration. In fact, no fewer than 392,000 of the 6.9 million applicants chose this method. However, a significant number of these forms could not be processed due to inaccurate or incomplete information, so the unsuccessful applicants were asked to resubmit before 31 August.

Cue chaos, as the scheme’s sole administrative office was swamped by hundreds of elderly people, many frail and emotionally charged, who queued in sweltering heat for hours to seek assistance with their applications. The desperate scenes sparked an apology from Financial Secretary Paul Chan: “I feel very sorry for what happened. This reflects that our preparation and arrangements were inadequate and there is room for improvement.”

The authorities have since responded quickly – extending the submission deadline to 15 September, opening three more service centres and adding extra manpower to help some 10,000 applicants resubmit their information. But it’s not like the government didn’t know what was coming. By its own figures, less than 40% of residents aged 65 and above use a personal computer. The fact that almost 6% of the applications were made on paper should have offered a further clue. We are far from being a smart city. Not for the first time, someone simply didn’t think it through.

Queueing for hours in searing heat at the behest of our leaders? Hong Kong’s 370,000 domestic helpers know all about that, having already undergone two rounds of mandatory Covid-19 testing (while their employers and families, occupants of the same household, did not). Further evidence that the government considers them second class citizens comes with the latest quarantine arrangements for returning residents. Helpers are allowed to use only one designated quarantine hotel when they arrive in Hong Kong, whereas 36 hotels are available for everyone else.

This city has recently started allowing fully vaccinated helpers from the Philippines and Indonesia, both classified as “high risk” for Covid-19, to return here if they hold a recognised inoculation certificate. They are required to quarantine for three weeks at the Silka Tsuen Wan hotel – and nowhere else – with the inevitable result that the 409-room facility was fully booked for the whole of September within a day. The authorities then announced a further 800 places would be available later this month at the infamous Penny’s Bay government quarantine camp. Yet all other arrivals, including non-domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia, are allowed to use the other quarantine hotels. There is simply no scientific basis for this policy decision.

Not everyone has to quarantine, of course. Thousands of exemptions are granted to multiple categories of travellers. This perk is once again being extended to Hongkongers coming back from mainland China and Macau under the government’s “Return2HK” scheme, which resumes today after being effectively suspended last month due to Covid-19 outbreaks across the border. Another programme, “Come2HK”, will be launched next week for non-residents. In announcing these developments, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam didn’t explain why any visitor would bother to come here in the knowledge they would still have to quarantine going back. In the absence of proper quarantine-free travel for Hong Kong citizens (who are forced to go to extraordinary lengths to comply with our government’s draconian policies), let’s call this for what it is: window dressing.

One conspicuous arrival in town yesterday was the first aircraft belonging to Hong Kong’s bold new carrier, Greater Bay Airlines. The Boeing 737 touched down from Kazakhstan, having previously been in Germany for flight tests. The fledgling airline, which is awaiting regulatory approval, hopes to mark its arrival on the scene with an inaugural flight on 1 October, which is China’s National Day. Let’s see: launching an airline amid a pandemic, with the global aviation industry in meltdown and Hong Kong locking up passengers for three weeks? Now that, my friends, is Lion Rock spirit.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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