All you need to know about the Hong Kong government’s ability to handle the Wuhan virus crisis can be seen in its logic-defying determination to pursue a legal action that would bar people from wearing face masks.

The administration’s defenders, a small embattled group, argue that the mask ban is directed at protesters, not those wearing surgical masks for medical reasons. However, the emergency powers that are being tested in the High Court are all-embracing and arbitrary, giving the government the ability to arrest any mask wearers.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

That’s the problem with using powers that should never have been used in the first place and that’s why human rights defenders took this issue to court in the first place.

Whatever the legal arguments, it defies belief to see the Lam administration so utterly shorn of common sense that it actually thinks now is the time to pursue its appeal to restore the mask ban while simultaneously flailing around trying to secure supplies of masks to appease increasingly furious and worried citizens.

But then again, this is the same group of waxworks who came up with the plan to establish a quarantine centre in a new housing block inside a residential area in Fanling.

What does this tell us about the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO) and the waxworks that surround her? Most obviously it tells us that they are plain stupid. But worse, they obviously think that the people of an outlying working-class district matter less than the fine folk they mix with on a daily basis.

There has, for example, been no suggestion of establishing a quarantine centre in the spacious Mid-Levels district. Nor has the CENO expressed enthusiasm for using the premises of an abandoned but still standing hospital in Lower Albert Road, adjacent to her fine mansion in Upper Albert Road.

Carrie Lam. File photo: WEF.

Then there is the matter of a sluggish response to barring the entry of mainlanders to Hong Kong. On top of this is lackadaisical monitoring of those crossing the border. The public is way ahead of the administration on this one and urged controls while the CENO was busy glugging whatever she was glugging in Davos as she ‘stayed in touch’ with her officials by phone from Switzerland, where she had important duties meeting a series of other non-entities at the World Economic Forum.

Ms Lam simply has no conception that the first rule of leadership is presence. Anyone aspiring to lead has to be visible and at the centre of things.

The heavy hand of Beijing rests uncomfortably over the whole issue of border controls. But while cities within the Mainland were quick to impose entry monitoring and bans on entry, the Hong Kong administration waited passively for orders from above and was reluctant to act.

It is possible that this potentially deadly negligence could have passed without popular resistance in the days before the still on-going protests that started last year. However protestors immediately took to the streets of Fanling and rapidly forced the government to backdown. A massive backlash against the lax border controls is now gathering pace, resulting in a partial backdown but leaving plenty of space for unease.

There is now the possibility that frustrated and exhausted hospital staff will go on strike in protest against the absence of adequate border controls and in exasperation over being supplied with below standard protective gear while working on the frontlines of the battle against this virus.

Talking of protective gear rapidly brings us to the face mask crisis. Stocks are dwindling and unscrupulous sellers are ramping up prices. If Hong Kong had anything resembling a competent government it would be using its full resources to bring fresh mask stocks to the public.

Unions threaten to strike. Photo: inmediahk.net.

It has powers to act under the Reserved Goods Ordinance which allows for the procurement of supplies and the control of prices. Instead of the decisive action on this matter even in sleepy Macau, there is much hand flapping and vague promises of finding a solution.

Lurking in the background of government inactivity has been the CENO’s slavish intention never to step out of line from Central Government policy. When Beijing was still declining to describe this crisis as a crisis, she and her waxworks followed the same script. Once the green light was given for admitting to the seriousness of the situation, out came masks on the faces of officials and out came a flurry of activity with results still to be seen.

This crisis gave the CENO an opportunity to show some real leadership and gain credibility but, as ever, she has shown that there is no opportunity too big to be missed. However, despite her lack of efforts or maybe because of them, what has happened is that the big blue/yellow divide has dissolved in the face of widespread agreement over the utter uselessness of the Lam administration.

And yet the CENO remains in office surrounded by her useless band of waxworks. Can her credibility sink any lower?

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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse.