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Will a saviour ride to our rescue?

Hong Kong, 4 May 2022: Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously offered a reassurance Hong Kong would retain its way of life after 1997. “Horse racing will continue and dancing parties will go on,” he promised. Covid-19 put a damper on the latter, but the thudding of hooves has persisted. With our city enduring some of the strictest social distancing rules in the world, the Hong Kong Jockey Club has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the sport via its “racing bubble”, conducting many race meetings behind closed doors and isolating riders from the community.

A good thing, too, because this has allowed the Jockey Club – the city’s largest taxpayer and charitable donor – to commit more than HK$1.8 billion (about US$230 million) to pandemic relief initiatives, including fast-tracking grants to NGOs offering essential services, providing food assistance to families in need and upgrading infection control facilities at residential care homes. Keeping the horses galloping is not only about demand – it is estimated more than 10% of citizens hold a Jockey Club betting account – it is a financial necessity.

Enthusiasts of other sports have had to be far more patient, with many facilities closed for months on end. Leagues have been abandoned, tournaments cancelled, exercise routines disrupted. Our physical and mental health have taken a pounding. Even now, the city’s gradual reopening is proceeding no faster than a gentle trot. “Once you surrender certain freedoms, it can be difficult to win them back,” I wrote in this column 18 months ago. Subsequent events are bearing me out, the latest example being outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s weekly press conference yesterday in which she announced – almost grudgingly, it seemed – a relaxation of three strict social distancing rules from tomorrow:

  • It will no longer be mandatory to wear a mask at outdoor sports venues or when jogging or while hiking in a country park.
  • Beaches, swimming pools and water playgrounds will be allowed to reopen.
  • Restaurants will be permitted a maximum of eight people per table, up from the current four.

Keep in mind it is May 2022, not the dark days of 2020, and our herd immunity levels are off the scale. If we are to believe a recent University of Hong Kong study, then 4.4 million people – 60% of the population – have been infected with Covid-19 thus far. As well, more than 91% of eligible people have received at least one vaccine dose. Armed with this information, you must ask why Hong Kong citizens are required to wear a mask at all, especially outside. People can still only gather outdoors in groups of four. Why? Restaurants must still close at 10:00pm. Why? Bars, karaoke lounges and nightclubs will remain shut until 19 May. Why?

Amid the many unfathomable policies we’ve endured – flight bans, 21-day quarantine, shutting schools, locking up healthy citizens, culling hamsters etc – the mandatory wearing of masks during competitive sport and strenuous exercise has been the icing on the cake. This daft requirement, still in force as I write, is so plainly contrary to basic medical knowledge that you shake your head in disbelief.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study on the subject in January, reporting: “Cloth face masks led to a 14% reduction in exercise time and 29% decrease in VO2max, attributed to perceived discomfort associated with mask-wearing.” The World Health Organization’s advice is unequivocal: “Even when you’re in an area of Covid-19 transmission, masks should not be worn during vigorous physical activity because of the risk of reducing your breathing capacity.”

Dr Patrick Yung, President of the Hong Kong Association of Sports Medicine and Sports Science, confessed to being “puzzled” by the measure and called the requirement for two tennis players at opposite ends of a court to wear masks “just unbelievable”. Dr David Owens, familiar to readers of this column and Chief Medical Officer of the Hong Kong Rugby Union, agreed: “It contributes to the slow drip feed of destruction of trust. The continued obsession with unscientific theatre diverts energy and resources from education and sensible mitigation policies.” Precisely. The rule is being scrapped from tomorrow but should never have been implemented. For the record, citizens will still be required to wear a mask in the gym. Doh!

Will Carrie’s successor John Lee be more enlightened? We can only hope. The sole candidate in this Sunday’s Chief Executive election has been busy on the – er – campaign trail, boosting his profile with a series of meticulously stage-managed public appearances. He has visited low-income residents, met ethnic minority leaders and taken part in a televised forum where he faced seven journalists and an assortment of residents posing questions through pre-recorded videos. This Friday he will hold a campaign rally at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Members of the public are not invited.

Mr Lee is promising a “tolerant, inclusive and robust” society that will allow people “to achieve their dreams”, although his just-published manifesto and public comments have stopped short of identifying specific policy goals. He doesn’t need to. This is, after all, a one-horse race.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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