Bordering on insanity
Updated: May 9, 2020
Hong Kong has NO mandatory face mask law! Before doing anything to open up the economy logically a mandatory Hong Kong face mask law must first be passed! This must be matched with much higher numbers of testing.
Everyone in Hong Kong (HK) knows that Covid-19 is a nasty virus and no one in their right mind wants to be infected. This is why many people are wondering why the government is considering opening up our borders to an influx of people who may bring in to the city a flood of asymptomatic and presymptomatic virus carriers that could spark an increase in the contagion.
Many Hongkongers have not forgotten their 2003 experience of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in HK that lead to 286 deaths in the Special Administrative Region (SAR). As I write the tally of deaths in HK related to the latest Coronavirus pandemic sits at just 4, while the number of confirmed cases of infection stands at 1,045. The global total for infections is over 3.85million with over 270,000 recorded deaths attributed to the virus.
Equally, people know how important having an income is: that jobs, industry, banks and business are all parts of what keeps our economies ticking over. It is not surprising, therefore, that in towns and cities everywhere people are clamouring for things to return to business as usual - despite the fact that experts have being saying for weeks that we need to adjust to this "new normal".
In HK, as social distancing rules put in place by the Chief Executive (CE) Carrie Lam, are gradually being relaxed in early May 2020, there has been an announcement that with health and hygiene precautions in place, schools will re-open to senior secondary school students by the end of the month. We are told by experts that this relaxation, that will also allow restaurants and diners to feed larger groups, is okay given that 17 days have passed with no locally-transmitted cases of Covid-19.
Ironically, the CE is often criticised for doing too little, too late, but possibly this time she is acting too soon!
Just a day or two earlier another health professional was on record saying that it was still too early to say that the chain of transmission for Covid-19 was broken in HK, even though the city had not seen a locally acquired infection for 15 days in a row.
This government move shows that perhaps the CE is too keen to respond to the pleas from various business sectors for permission to get their businesses back in operation again. Lam's government has already extended a range of financial gestures to help businesses and employees weather the shutdown, but latest economic figures for the SAR that announced a massive decline have only added to the city's woes.
The local economy has been badly affected by the pandemic, shrinking 8.9% in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same quarter last year. The worst on record.
Anti-virus measures have "brought inbound tourism to a standstill and seriously disrupted consumption-related activities," a government spokesperson told the Nikkei Asian Review, adding that the business environment for retail will "remain very difficult" in the near-term amid the deep economic recession and the sharp deterioration in the labor market.
"We believe that the anti-epidemic measures will be gradually relaxed, but it doesn't mean that consumer confidence will recover," Annie Yau Tse, chairwoman of the HK Retail Management Association, said on the day the relaxation of social distancing was announced. She expects a 30% to 50% decline in retail sales in the first half of the year.
At the end of April 2020 some HK lawmakers were calling on the SAR government to relax travel restrictions and allow more free movement across the borders between HK and the mainland.
Plans to issue special permits to HK business people with factories and offices on the mainland fell short of expectations, however, after it was found that any exemption of the 14-day quarantine period for arrivals would not be relaxed so easily on the mainland. In places like Shenzhen, for example, where many former HK industries are based, authorities are still wary of a renewed wave of Coronavirus infection. Foreigners and returning citizens are identified threats, and HK is often used as a transit route into mainland China.
CE Lam has previously been reluctant to recognise and act to reduce the infection risk to the SAR posed by cross-border travel.
Engineer Dan Van Hoy often travels up from HK to his mainland electronics factories across the border on the mainland.
Speaking to RTHK, Van Hoy pointed out that while it's good that he wouldn't have to stay home for two weeks when coming back to Hong Kong, it's not terribly useful when he still would have to observe a quarantine imposed by authorities when he enters the mainland.
"As a businessman, I'm a little frustrated because I'm unable to go to my factories up in Shenzhen and Dongguan area. It's a busy season. I don't understand why the government introduced this programme when only half of the equation – half of the need – is resolved”, he said.
Why the HK government presented a half-baked travel permit plan without first negotiating the other half of the arrangements with mainland authorities is anyone's guess!
What they ought to have done is announce their PLANNING and NEGOTIATION for such an arrangement...even invite people to share ideas! That is all about government being open and transparent.
6 May 2020, the HK government announced that as part of its plan to re-open schools in the SAR, it was 'studying the risks' and logistical arrangements associated with allowing some 27,000 cross-border mainland based students to resume their schooling in the city. Prior to the pandemic, there was a very active educational 'industry' in which hundreds of mainland children were sent across the border to kindergartens and primary schools in HK that were threatened with closure due to falling student rolls.
According to the Education Secretary, Kevin Yeung, the government is discussing with Shenzhen authorities ways to facilitate 27,000 children crossing the border every day to attend schools in HK and assessing the risk of such high numbers coming into the city. The secretary also indicated that even though the SAR government can exempt these students from the current quarantine requirements, the same exemption would have to be granted by the Shenzhen authorities.
Currently all people entering Guangdong province from Hong Kong have to undergo mandatory quarantine.
“Every day they have to go back to the mainland, it’s impractical if they have to be quarantined for 14 days in Shenzhen," Yeung said.
Students would be required to wear face masks at all time on campus and in school buses.
He noted that these students usually cross the border via different control points, such as Shenzhen Bay in the west of Hong Kong, and Lo Wu to the north, adding to the complexity of arrangements.
A letter sent by the Education Bureau to all schools says students should avoid sitting face-to-face. It advises schools to implement a flexible timetable so students don’t have to go to or leave schools at the same time, to avoid crowds.
It seems that the government is placing too much trust on the efficacy of masks to prevent spread of the virus. What kind of masks would these kids be wearing? It's also generally considered that young children are the least capable of adhering to strict hygiene rules such as hand-washing and social distancing.
Should the HK government be taking what is clearly a gamble? How do the people of HK feel about opening up the border, and will they ever be consulted for their views on the matter?
The HK government already has a very low approval rating and is not widely trusted by the HK public (see our blog on the lack of trust). CE Lam and her supporters are supposed to be doing their best to win support as the September Legislative Council elections draw ever closer (see our blog on the pro-democracy plan to win that election), but most gestures seem to flounder.
Who do you believe? Who should we trust?
Unlike successful women leaders elsewhere, our HK CE tends to announce her plans following a 'rule by law' approach: there is little transparency in the processes of decision-making. Too often she ends up with 'egg on her face'. Many feel that the Coronavirus crisis is being overly-politicised and the central health concerns are being ignored. HK is also not doing enough testing to really be confident about the level of community infection, real and potential.
There has to be something morally wrong and unethical about knowingly and unnecessarily exposing young children to this threat to their health?
The HK government must act with utmost regard to the rights of children and also the broader rights of all its citizens.
Under international law the right to life is the sole determining factor of everything. All humans have a "supreme human right" which under international law, including ICCPR, is their UN human right to life. This supreme human right can NOT be derogated by the State for any reason; derogation "is the act of talking about or treating someone in a way that shows you do not respect him, her, or it." ICCPR is legislated into law in HK as the HK Bill of Rights Ordinance.
On 8 May 2020 RTHK reported findings of a study by the University of Hong Kong which found that the eyes are an important route of infection for the new coronavirus to enter the body. This is yet further reason for the HK government to proceed more cautiously on its plans to open more of its 14 border crossing points.
Some media reports have also suggested that there may be different strains of the virus that lead to infection, accounting in part for the wide differences in rates of infection from place to place. A report by Peak Prosperity illustrates one strain that is clearly more virulent and contagious than the other (see the video below).
Recently there have been reports alarming for parents of very young children, of a sudden worldwide spike in an otherwise rare pediatric inflammatory disease: Kawasaki disease. Pediatricians are making the link to Covid-19.
Time reported fifteen children between the ages of two and 15 were treated for a mysterious Kawasaki-like inflammatory symptoms in New York City hospitals between April 17 and May 1, according to a recent announcement from the New York City Department of Health. Four of the children tested positive for COVID-19, while six tested negative but had antibodies in their blood that suggested they had recovered from coronavirus. All of the children survived, but half required blood-pressure support and five needed mechanical ventilation, according to the bulletin.
On 5 May 2020 it was announced that HK deputies to the National People's Congress who are attending the annual meeting in Beijing later in that month will be tested for Covid-19 in Shenzhen before flying on to the capital. This does seem to be a rational precaution, given we are all faced with an invisible but highly infectious enemy. Will those same delegates have to endure a 14-day quarantine upon their arrival back in HK? Unsurprisingly there has been no announcement on this matter!
The only conclusion to be made from all of this is that CE Lam and the HK government are NOT of the right frame of mind to be making decisions about managing the pandemic as a threat to the SAR. They are adding to people's fears and anxiety rather than contributing to stability and calm.
It's clearly time for a new leader and better model of governance!