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We are still not learning our lessons

Hong Kong, 6 January 2021: Welcome back to my weekly missive, I hope you all had a pleasant festive season. It is usual at this time to make New Year’s resolutions in the interests of self-improvement. I’m no different, except my undertakings are pledged on behalf of the collective “we” – that is our community at large and, especially, the politicians who lead us as we commence a second year of fighting the coronavirus. In 2021, we have to prioritise education, both in the traditional schooling sense and in a wider context. We also need to communicate more clearly, display greater transparency and apply smarter governance.

In matters of learning, we are failing a generation of young people, from kindergarten toddlers up to tertiary students. On Monday, our Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung announced face-to-face classes would remain generally suspended until after the Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February. There are some exceptions that allow certain pupils back in classes, but no more than one sixth of the student population will be allowed to return to school on any given day. This leaves the vast majority of young people once again at the mercy of monotonous and deeply flawed online learning.

Last year, many students spent less than 20 weeks at school. Hong Kong was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to shut down its campuses due to the pandemic, starting at the end of January and only reopening in late May. Classes were suspended again in mid-July, with the summer holidays brought forward, but commencement of the new academic year was delayed to late September. Campuses closed early again, at the start of December, ahead of the Christmas break.

To be clear, there is no evidence that schools are a source of Covid-19 transmission. None of the waves of infections which have rippled through the territory have featured clusters in academic institutions. Yet high-risk activities in the community – toe-to-toe dancing, anyone? – have been allowed to continue while students are forced to stay home, sometimes unsupervised, to the detriment of their physical and mental wellbeing.

It should be stressed, also, that a significant number of young people don’t even have the luxury of online learning. Research has revealed that four in five low-income families in Hong Kong cannot afford computers for their children. Around one-fifth of such households do not have Wi-fi. Even if they do have these facilities, their cramped living conditions often make for a poor learning environment. It is another example of how Covid-19 and our government’s response to it have exacerbated glaring social inequalities in this, one of the richest cities in the world.

Our failure to properly educate young people is mirrored by our inability to effectively inform the general public about pandemic-related issues and adequately explain government policies. It is simply not good enough for us to learn about vague plans to roll out mass vaccinations next month via a government minister’s Facebook post, as happened last Saturday. We need an official announcement with full details, please.

This lack of transparency and failure of leadership was typified by this week’s government U-turn on Covid-19 media briefings. The health authorities first announced their daily press conferences would be moved online, with reporters required to email in questions, prompting howls of protest that officials could thus evade tough lines of inquiry and that the public’s right to know was being undermined. The government’s justification for the move – social distancing, although there were no plans to do likewise for other press conferences – was less than convincing. Within 24 hours, the idea was scrapped. Really, who thought of it and what did they suppose the reaction would be?

On an encouraging note, Hong Kong’s fourth wave of infections appears to be weakening. The city confirmed 32 new cases yesterday, the lowest daily total since 26 were recorded on 20 November. The overall infection tally – spread across the course of almost 12 months, please remember – now stands at 9,049 with 153 related fatalities. We are told to expect more than 20 new cases today.

In non-virus news, some 50 former opposition lawmakers and activists have been arrested this morning on subversion charges in the biggest clampdown since the national security law took effect six months ago. The arrests relate to last July’s primary elections held by the pan-democratic camp as part of a strategy to gain control of the Legislative Council. It is too early to comment, although we await further developments with interest.

But back to resolutions. Personally, I’ve resolved to maintain the fitness kick which has yielded such positive results in recent months and continue spending quality time with grandson Nathan. This latter one is made easier, of course, by the fact he isn’t at school.  

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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