After three years of Covid restrictions, the much-anticipated reopening has come. But it seems to have come out of the blue. Without groundwork laid and roadmaps set out, an overnight policy change looks rash.
When science changed with the emergence of Omicron, a less deadly but more contagious variant, the world adapted, but Hong Kong didn’t. Now, Omicron is still the dominant variant. Science has not changed much. But Hong Kong heads for change.
Towards the end of 2021, the government committed itself to a containment policy invented up north called “dynamic clearing”. No one, not even the city’s chief executive, knew what it meant. That’s why the press attempted to translate this form of newspeak to simple English – Zero Covid.
As Hongkongers watched the outside world beginning to get back to normal, the establishment brushed aside calls for reopening borders with the world, citing the need to prioritise travel with the Chinese mainland. And one even claimed that drifting away from China’s Covid policy might amount to a violation of the national security law.
After realising that quarantine-free travel with China was somewhat far-fetched while a mass exodus of businesses became increasingly possible, the authorities relaxed border controls to “0+3” but stopped short of announcing a “0+0” quarantine arrangement. Why? “We have to care for the feelings of the mainland,” a pro-Beijing heavyweight explained.
But surely, not all opposition to reopening was that political. An expert once argued that the road to normalcy is a road to hell. Such stark language clearly came from a public health point of view concerning a surge of elderly deaths as a result of uncontrolled infections.
Now, that expert has become health secretary but Hong Kong is on the road to normalcy. Perhaps some facts have changed. Vaccination coverage has indeed improved substantially.
But just four days before announcing the lifting of restrictions, he gave his reason for keeping the Vaccine Pass scheme, pointing to a dissatisfyingly low vaccination rate among the elderly and children. After the Christmas weekend, the scheme had gone with the wind.
By the end of last February, when Hong Kong was put into the strictest lockdown in its history, there were about 20,000 new positive cases and 80 deaths. On the day of the new announcement, there were 20,865 new cases and 59 deaths. The numbers are still rising. High infection and death figures worried the authority then, but for some reason, are no longer worrying now.
China is reopening. Instead of welcoming unrestricted travel with China, an increasing number of countries are greeting Chinese visitors with more tests on arrival. The reason is simple: the spread of Covid in China has seemingly gone out of control, alarming scientists of possible mutations.
No one is suggesting with certainty that there are, or would be, new variants. Without accurate data or trustworthy reports, it is vigilance that’s needed at this time of great uncertainty.
But the Hong Kong government, which had been looking after the health of its citizens with extreme care for the past three years, has decided to take a leap of faith, beseeching for travel with the mainland.
Regarding science, the logic of Hong Kong’s relaxations seem inconsistent. But if we look at politics, it explains everything. From prioritising travel with China, to caring for the feelings of the mainland, the city’s public health policy seems to have always been guided by nothing but China.
China has decided to befriend Covid as the “new flu” in a way like Eurasia allies with Oceania in the dystopian novel 1984. Overnight, state media went from publishing scare stories of Covid to celebrating news of mass infection.
It would not just be embarrassing but humiliating to have a loyal subject disapproving the action of its sovereign. And it was once said, drifting away from China’s Covid policy might amount to a violation of the national security law.
Without national security and a respect for China’s “overall jurisdiction”, Hong Kong would be nothing but a mere insignificant international financial centre. For that, the government is not only obliged to tell good stories of the city, but also good stories of Covid.
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