Here we are again: a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections and a fourth wave of new government measures to combat the virus. The problem is that official action can only be effective where there is trust in government – pause here for hollow laughter.

Photo: GovHK.

As matters stand, the extraordinary self-discipline and caution of Hongkongers has been the driving force keeping the infection rate impressively below that of other jurisdictions. The muddled, politically charged and downright incompetent response of the failing Lam administration stands in stark contrast.

This matters because a lack of official credibility and a lack of trust leads people to behave in ways that are not conducive to getting on top of this pandemic.

Everyone with half a brain understands why social distancing is necessary but in Hong Kong application of the rules is selective and politically charged.

Social distancing has been used as an excuse to ban all demonstrations and to postpone elections. In the meantime it is hard to make sense of rules that banned people from going to beaches and closed swimming pools while allowing them to go to gyms. All evidence points to the fact that the spread of infection outdoors is far less likely than indoors and there has not been a single case of transmission at swimming pools.

Photo: GovHK.

Also, before a recent change of heart, religious gatherings were allowed, while beauty parlours and massage establishments were also permitted to remain open even though their business involves direct bodily contact. It is hard to know what to make of any of this.

Nor is it possible to understand the frequent closure of bars. It is perfectly possible to establish a Covid-safe regime, but the government seems determined to put as many of them as possible out of business.

And as for the bizarre idea that early closing of restaurants helps fight the virus – let’s see the evidence that transmission mainly takes place after 10pm, or whichever other arbitrary closing time has been imposed.

Tracking and tracing is an important weapon in limiting transmissions, but this has become a fraught matter in Hong Kong, where there is justifiable suspicion over the use of data. This dampened people’s enthusiasm for joining the half-cocked and not so universal testing programme. It will also dampen enthusiasm for the planned QR code programme, and indeed for any other measure where suspicion lurks that personal data can be passed on and used for other purposes.

File Photo: GovHK.

Then there is the idea of installing yet another hotline for people to report infractions by neighbours, colleagues and, who knows, maybe even family members they don’t like. This comes hot on the heels of the other new hotline for reporting breaches of the National Security Law. No wonder Hongkongers worry over these Stasi-like developments.

And while they are wondering they can only gape open-mouthed at the government’s dogged determination to do what it can to open the border to increase the flow of people coming and going from the mainland. The political imperative to do this is clear but the Covid control rationale is entirely obscure.

In the midst of all this, the Hospital Authority has decided that while medical staff are working flat out to get the epidemic under control and maintain other medical services, now is the time to start docking their pay for striking earlier in the year – not for their personal benefit but to force the government to take measures to control the virus. The fact that all these measures were eventually adopted is brushed aside by the Lam administration, which is on a crusade to extinguish all forms of protest.

So, as the number of infections rises, the government is trying to tackle the problem with one hand tied behind its back and, amazingly, this is the hand that it has tied itself.  It’s bonkers.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines 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 and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship