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Two steps forward, one step back

Hong Kong, 17 February 2021: My new-found passion for hiking has resulted in the formation of the Stumblers, a loose group of friends who meet regularly to trek through the great outdoors and explore forgotten parts of this fascinating city. Sometimes, we advance more in hope than expectation, there are occasions when we become lost, or confused, and periodically we make a U-turn. In this respect, our outings are much like the Hong Kong government’s fight against Covid-19.

This week, the authorities have announced a widespread relaxation of social distancing regulations, complete with some baffling exceptions, while we’ve made fitful progress on vaccines and our schools remain mostly closed. We are, indeed, walking a rocky path.

From tomorrow, restaurants will be allowed to open until 10:00pm and cater for groups of four, a welcome development after 10 weeks of evenings at home due to dine-in services being suspended from 6:00pm. However, public gatherings will remain limited to two people. Go figure.

All sports venues and gyms are reopening tomorrow, ditto cinemas, concert halls, theme parks, beauty salons and a whole host of other premises. Happy hour would be even happier if bars and pubs were also allowed back in business, but that’s not the case, much to the dismay of license holders who are furious at being treated differently from restaurants. Likewise, our beaches and swimming pools remain closed, to the puzzlement of many, even while public transport is packed and commercial malls welcome hordes of shoppers.

This piecemeal easing of social distancing restrictions comes as Hong Kong’s so-called fourth wave of coronavirus infections subsides. Our city recorded just nine new infections on Monday, the lowest daily figure for almost three months, and only eight yesterday. These numbers brought the overall total to 10,796 cases with 195 related fatalities. We are told to expect more than 10 new cases today.

Having played their obedient part in reducing the coronavirus caseload, Hong Kong citizens can only look on wistfully as the world gets inoculated. The US, for all its dismal handling of the pandemic, has carried out more than 52 million vaccinations. The EU has done almost 22 million, the UK nearly 16 million. Israel, with a population of 9.3 million – not significantly bigger than Hong Kong’s – has given out a world-leading 76 jabs per 100 people. Some 90% of Israelis aged over 60 have been vaccinated. The country’s widely praised programme is having a profound effect, with the latest data suggesting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine being used nationwide is preventing 94% of symptomatic infections.

Having previously trumpeted its purchase of 22.5 million vaccine doses from three different suppliers, our government has yet to vaccinate anybody. Last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam revealed there were “hiccups” regarding delivery. The vaccine roll-out, originally scheduled to have started by now, has been delayed to at least the end of this month. Last night, a panel of medical experts advising the government recommended China’s Sinovac vaccine be used in emergency situations. Professor Wallace Lau, the panel’s head, denied there was political pressure to approve the jab despite Sinovac not having published its data in a medical journal and the World Health Organization not yet giving any advice on it.

It all makes for an unhealthy situation. Hong Kong residents are being drip-fed information about the vaccine roll-out from various government ministers and officials via social media posts, radio interviews, ad hoc media briefings and newspaper exclusives. The programme lacks leadership, clarity and transparency.

As for education, Hong Kong’s 900,000 kindergarten, primary and secondary students have stayed home for most of the past year while doing their learning online, although there is zero evidence that schools are a source of Covid-19 transmission. Now, in-person classes are resuming painfully slowly following the latest school closures which began on 2 December. This process needs dramatic acceleration, since online lessons are a poor substitute for the real thing and their inadequacy is exacerbated by students’ lack of social interaction and exercise. No matter a child’s learning level or social circumstances, I think we can all agree virtual schooling is deeply flawed.

In finishing, I should point out there was an educational element to the Stumblers’ most recent sojourn, a trek up Mount Parker near Quarry Bay. We traced the route of Hong Kong’s first cable car, constructed in 1892 to ferry Taikoo Sugar Refinery senior staff and their families to a summer retreat known as “the Sanitarium”. Long since demolished, the resort provided residents with respite from our city’s notorious heat and humidity, as well as frequent outbreaks of bubonic plague. It would have been rather useful right now.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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