Commentary: Hong Kong is caught between Beijing and a deadly Omicron wave
After two years of the most restrictive COVID-19 measures in the world, Hong Kongers are still facing a deadly Omicron wave and this reflects a deeper issue than trying to live with COVID-19, says Hong Kong Baptist University’s Yew Wei Lit.
HONG KONG: In a span of just one month, Hong Kong turned from one of the “safest” places in the world to one with the worst COVID-19 death rates in the developed world. The more than 2,300 deaths recorded in one month easily surpassed the total deaths that occurred in the two years prior.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong hit a daily record high of 56,827 confirmed COVID-19 cases - and that’s likely an underestimation since authorities now rely on self-reporting.
Hong Kong still has a flight ban in place for several countries such as Australia, United Kingdom and United States. But based on recent developments, Hong Kong authorities would have quickly issued a travel ban to itself.
The severity of the Omicron wave has certainly alarmed Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the Hong Kong government to “take all necessary measures” to contain the situation.
A delegation of mainland Chinese medical professionals, led by the architect of China’s “dynamic zero” strategy, Dr Liang Wannian, are already in town to bolster its frontline forces, and Chinese contractors have rushed to build makeshift hospitals.
While Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam assured that there would not be a “wholesale” mainland-style city lockdown, the authorities were planning a mandatory mass testing on all its 7.4 million residents though this is now uncertain.
Meanwhile, schools have been closed for an early summer break. Officials are also doubling down on sending infected patients into isolation facilities, and to do so, they may have to requisition hotels, housing estates and even student dormitories.
CAN HONG KONG SURVIVE ZERO-COVID?
“Living with COVID” is no longer just a hypothetical scenario or a matter of policy choice.
It must become a reality when the latest models from the University of Hong Kong estimate 4.3 million in Hong Kong will have been infected with COVID-19 by May, while the total death toll will double the current figure.
Yet, Hong Kong remains poorly equipped to even contemplate this. It has neither the healthcare capacity nor a highly inoculated population to follow in the footsteps of countries who have long abandoned “zero-COVID”.
Prior to the current fifth wave of infections, only about three-quarters of the city's population have been fully vaccinated, unlike mainland China’s high vaccination rate of over 85 per cent. But only thanks to the eleventh-hour push over the last few weeks, the number has reached around 80 per cent.
Hong Kong’s lower vaccination rate has much to do with the widespread vaccine hesitancy among the older generation. Prior to the current outbreak, less than half of those in their 70s and above were vaccinated. The majority of COVID-19 deaths this year has been the unvaccinated elderly.
The irony is that Hong Kong has been a victim of its own success in keeping the virus at bay. Both the government and the public have been lulled into a false sense of security.
After all, if there is no apparent urgency, why should the elderly consider getting jabs that they believe are either ineffective or carry deadly side-effects?
Fixated with re-opening the borders with the mainland, Hong Kong officials had mostly kept infections low with tough border control measures. But by essentially sealing itself away from the world, it had come at a cost to Hong Kong’s reputation as “Asia’s world city”.
While VF Corporation, the parent company of brands like Timberland and Vans, plans to relocate its regional headquarters away from Hong Kong, other Hong Kong-based international businesses such as Mandarin Oriental and JPMorgan have relocated their key staff to mainland China or Singapore. And there has been reportedly a mass exodus of expatriates, with more than 70,000 net departures recorded in February.
"LEANING ON" CHINA COMES AT A COST
Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, once declared that Hong Kong should “lean on the motherland while facing the world”. In other words, Hong Kong would enjoy the dual advantage of having deep connections with the global markets, while being backed up politically and economically by a rising China.
Yet, in events of crises, Hong Kong leaders have always prioritised the link to “the motherland” over the world.
Recognising this explains Hong Kong’s adherence to the “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy. More importantly, Hong Kong is politically bound by China’s strategy. Lam admitted earlier this year that it was in fact a “demand” from mainland authorities.
Beijing leaders and state-run media have also been vigilant in ensuring that Hong Kong toes the national line: That any other approach is a “Western” one that would inevitably lead to disaster. Lam has also recently parroted China’s official narrative that living with COVID-19 is equivalent to “lying flat”, in addition to using war-like rhetoric to characterise its ongoing struggle against the virus.
Lam has likened the current situation to “fighting a war” and claimed that the city “cannot surrender to the virus”, even calling herself the “commander-in-chief” of the battle.
However, Hong Kong has lacked the foresight to strengthen its own capacity to implement “dynamic zero-COVID”.
The city has only had to do partial lockdowns of buildings, compared to mainland China which has already placed whole cities like Xi'an and Shenzhen under lockdown.
From contact tracing to mass testing and enforcement of lockdown, the reach and capacity of the state apparatus simply do not compare to that of their mainland counterparts.
Under a city-wide lockdown, could Hong Kong’s 34,000-strong police force be reliably counted on to keep all of its 7.4 million residents indoors?
PUBLIC PATIENCE RUNNING THIN
In any case, public patience is running thin. Many had been willing to put up with daily inconveniences and restrictions over international travel if it meant near-zero infections and a quick re-opening of borders with the mainland.
But authorities were caught flat-footed after Omicron broke through two years of harsh measures and have been struggling ever since.
Now with neither of those goals in sight, many have wondered publicly how the government had squandered the precious time and goodwill to prepare. And incidents, such as parents being separated from infected children, have only made them angrier.
Even Lam’s pro-establishment colleagues and business allies have criticised the government’s missteps.
To be sure, vaccine hesitancy is a major reason for Hong Kong’s current crisis. But there is a bigger underlying systemic problem that cuts to the core of the crisis - deep societal distrust of the government.
Recent research from Hong Kong Baptist University has confirmed that those who are vaccine-hesitant tend to also distrust the government the most.
That Hong Kong’s COVID-19 approach has more to do with politics rather than scientific basis is something keenly felt by many, from medical personnel to academics and journalists. Political distrust had only worsened in the aftermath of the National Security Law.
The tragic irony is that the government’s actions have only deepened this distrust, if not vindicated what many have been thinking about the local authorities - that they do not have the public’s interests at heart and is unable to carry out robust pandemic policies - be it living with COVID-19 or dynamic zero-COVID.
Yew Wei Lit is a lecturer in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.