Is there a point at which Hong Kong’s Covid policies go from keeping people safe – if claustrophobic – to risking the opposite result and making life in the SAR unnecessarily complicated? More crucially: has that point been reached already?

Coronavirus Covid-19 vaccine student
A student receives a Covid-19 vaccine in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Take the latest directive, which requires all confirmed Covid-19 patients to undergo 14 days of isolation and health monitoring after they have been discharged from hospital – meaning, after they have stopped being ill and their tests results have come back negative. Let’s hope that no community outbreak occurs again. But are we quite sure that this additional burden – which according to those medical experts who have spoken out, makes little scientific sense – will not make people very hesitant to come forward in suspected cases?

The new rule also seems to place an increased burden on medical personnel and on travellers – the unlucky ones who return to Hong Kong and discover, during quarantine, that they have contracted the virus. No matter their circumstances, they will be spending a very long time in government facilities. 

The majority of the local population may feel that, after all, this doesn’t really affect them, so whatever.

But what does affect everyone, rich or poor, is the increasing reliance on LeaveHomeSafe, the government-developed app that only works on smartphones – which not everyone owns or knows how to operate. 

Hong Kong Book Fair 2021
Book fair goers scan a QR code for the government-developed contact-tracing app LeaveHomeSafe. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Starting Monday, it will be mandatory to use the app at all government premises, including schools (although students will be exempt), libraries, offices, hospitals, police stations, wet markets and sport facilities (the hospital authorities have since said that ways will be found for patients who cannot scan the app, and we await details).

The need for this intense monitoring, in a city which has hardly registered any local-origin Covid-19 cases for months, might not be so obvious. But the way things are these days, questioning certain decisions can only be done among friends since there is no one left to query government policies directly. 

The LeaveHomeSafe app was introduced a year ago as a handy but voluntary way to share one’s location with the authorities in case of a community outbreak of Covid-19, which would have made contact tracing very simple. Now, those who are vaccinated can also register the details on the app. But until now the app was not compulsory, even if navigating the city without it is getting increasingly burdensome. Most restaurants, cinemas, bars and so on allow patrons to write down their details on paper or register them on an online form (although this, too, requires a mobile phone, it has the advantage of not being shared with the authorities but only the management of the location visited).

Carrie Lam Leavehome safe
Carrie Lam showing LeaveHomeSafe app. Photo: Carrie Lam via Facebook.

Those restaurants and clubs that have made the app compulsory have been allowed to host more than four people sharing one table, and don’t have to keep scraps of paper with contact details. But a customer’s decision, until now, was mostly determined by how much he or she valued their privacy. If they owned a smartphone in the first case, that is. 

What the new policies do is leave out the poorest people among us: those who sleep rough, in parks or in underpasses, and have nowhere to charge a battery so do not have a mobile phone – let alone a smartphone capable of downloading an app. According to the Society for Community Organisation, lack of smartphones means roughly 75 per cent of poor people will be unable to access government services.

Remember when workers were forced to eat standing in parks or sitting on kerbs a little more than a year ago, because the government had banned indoor service in restaurants without thinking of alternatives? The spectacle of workers and elderly people quickly swallowing their food in the sweltering heat caused a U-turn. But this time the government hasn’t yet shown any remorse at making people feel left out just because they cannot afford a smartphone.

A Hong Kong street sleeper holding a smartphone. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

It is a strange decision. Because overseas travel is still so costly and complicated, and tests are administered during unnecessarily long quarantines, it is very unlikely that someone who is infected could decide to go to a library or elsewhere while still contagious. 

Wouldn’t it be more efficient to push for greater vaccination rates, especially among the elderly (the least vaccinated group in the community) and those who may be more exposed to quarantine facilities and foreign arrivals due to their jobs? 

It is not possible to learn much about the rationale for these decisions. Even if journalists ask questions the answers seem to be a reiteration of what is happening rather than an explanation. So we cannot know if the growing reliance on the app is the result of a clear request from mainland authorities to allow for the reopening of the border. We do know that the Hong Kong government is keen on reopening that particular border, while the other borders do not matter nearly as much to it – so once again we can only speculate.

The impact which the app has on people’s privacy, however, is troubling. Must the government know when anyone in the population has gone to the wet market or the pool? And why? Why can’t we share this information just with the facilities’ operators, if we so wish?

The only ones who will be exempt from the new rule are those aged below 12 or over 65, and the disabled. Proof of vaccination is not required from anyone in these groups. All this while Hong Kong has a vaccine effective against Delta and the other new variants that have been plaguing the world. So why so much control, so much checking of where people go, rather than a stronger vaccination campaign? 

Covid-19 coronavirus virus student school children
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

What is truly troubling is how these measures are adopted, the tone-deaf way in which they are implemented, and the way in which they change along the way without much explanation. Why are such long quarantine periods and post-recovery isolation necessary? Why has an app that was not compulsory suddenly become so – and what about those who do not want, or cannot afford, a smartphone? It is not just the homeless who are discriminated against but many of the more than one million poor people living in Hong Kong. Does their health matter less? Does their access to the city’s facilities matter less? 

And what is wrong with the alternatives? In Singapore, for example, there are Bluetooth- equipped tokens and Bluetooth equipped readers in all buildings. The tokens have been handed out to all five million residents, who can carry and use them instead of mobile phones if they need. Forms to be filled in manually can be fiddly, but again, less coercive. 

But it would seem that the value of a less coercive policy has long been lost on the Hong Kong government, keen on zero-Covid in hopes of reopening the border with the mainland (a decision on which, it would seem, it has little influence) – and apparently not too displeased by the extra layer of monitoring this app business allows.

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Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.