It is hard to tell whether this was a case of unthinking racism, deliberate racism or mere stupidity. But what is clear is that targeting foreign domestic helpers in the fight against Covid had nothing to do with science and a great deal to do with the aggressively political manner in which the Hong Kong government has chosen to fight the virus.

The decision to target helpers was justified by a very muddled Labour Secretary Law Chi-kwong, who described them as being a “high-risk group”. He pointed out that getting them tested and vaccinated was vital because they were often responsible for looking after the young and elderly.

domestic workers coronavirus covid
Foreign domestic workers under ban on public gathering of more than four people amid coronavirus pandemic. Photo: United Social Press.

This may well be the case but why then are the young and elderly not also being tested if, as Law claims, there is likely to be a danger of “cross-family infections”? Maybe in his mind transmission only works in one direction; an assertion based on zero evidence.

Evidence aside, the reason for targeting domestic helpers is because they are deemed to be “guilty” of spending their days off with friends who are also “guilty” of being domestic helpers. Moreover the manner in which they gather leads to “anti-social behaviour” as it tends to involve eating and drinking. Clearly such activities are not commonplace among other Hong Kong residents.

The charge sheet against these potential virus carriers is long and topped by the observation that they live with their employers, something they are required to do by law.

Demonising and pointing fingers at this group of foreigners, who enjoy very few rights in Hong Kong, is a convenient way of dodging the real issues.

Foreign domestic worker covid-19 test
Foreign domestic workers wait in line under the sun to get Covid-19 tests.

The fact that they also tend to have somewhat darker skin colouring and are overwhelmingly female adds a particularly odorous tinge to the implicit racism in this matter.

While there is no evidence that domestic workers are the primary disease spreaders, there is evidence of considerable contagion emanating from wealthy matrons attending dance classes with good-looking male hosts. And then there was the epic cluster of infections emanating from a gym populated by well-heeled yuppies. We still await a mass targeting of dancing ladies and gym-goers.

However it appears that even the Lam administration is capable of being embarrassed by the zeal of its officials. The Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO) was forced into something of a backtrack, as ever with no admission of fault, saying that perhaps the requirements for helpers’ compulsory inoculation might have gone too far and would need to be re-examined.

Were this an isolated incident of racism, it would be quite bad enough. However dramatic lockdowns of areas notably populated by people of South Asian origin marked the start of an entirely spurious programme of area lockdowns, notable for their lavish expenditure of public resources in return for practically no medical benefit as the resulting tests unearthed practically no one with the virus.

Sai Ying Pun covid lockdown
Coronavirus lockdown in Sai Ying Pun on Monday. Photo: Michael Ho/Studio Incendo.

These draconian measures have not worked for the simple reason that they are untroubled by science or previous epidemic control experience. What does work is a sound track and trace system for people who have been found to be infected by Covid and need to be specifically targeted. Targets based on little more than ethnicity are morally objectionable and patently useless in medical terms.

Meanwhile the self-declared “patriots” who are now firmly installed in the government have been making sure that patriotism always takes precedence over medicine.

This is why the main focus of the vaccination programme concentrates on the Chinese-produced Sinovac product, the least effective of all vaccinations in the international market. The fact that it has yet to complete its verification process is brushed aside and it now seems increasingly clear that once Hongkongers can again travel, a Sinovac inoculation will not be recognised by many countries who will bar entry to those who have taken this form of vaccination.

Meanwhile every sinew is being strained to open the border with the rest of the Motherland. Travellers from Guangdong can now freely enter Hong Kong, while the more cagey Guangdong authorities still insist that incomers from the SAR are subject to quarantine. The border must be opened at all costs, says the CENO.

students masks mainland coronavirus covid masks
Cross border students wearing face mask as precautionary measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus going back to Mainland China after classes in Hong Kong. File photo: May James/HKFP.

The epic task of tackling the Covid pandemic has brought out the best and worst in governments. Administrations, such as those in New Zealand, Taiwan and tiny Iceland, which have focused on the science and not allowed themselves to be distracted by other priorities, have emerged from this crisis quickly with the reputation of their leaders enhanced.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is part of that dismal cohort of places where politics has taken precedence over medicine, leaving the government even less trusted. This matters because a lack of trust translates into a lagging ability to put the virus to bed.

Only the good sense and self-discipline of Hongkongers themselves has prevented the pandemic from taking a heavy death toll, but it’s a fair bet that the SAR will take a lot longer than other places to emerge from this crisis.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Steve Vines

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