Removing a cobweb by burning the house down (为除蜘蛛网烧毁房子)
A story of the lunacy of Hong Kong’s dogmatic ‘zero-covid’ strategy
“Keeping your eyes on the prize, but nothing else, almost always leads to failure”
The success of government policy is often equated to its overall ‘effectiveness’ at solving a given problem. Affirmative action is measured by its impact on societal inequalities, monetary policy is measured by its impact on reducing inflation rates, and the death penalty is measured by its impact on crime. Although consideration of how far a problem has been solved is necessary when evaluating government policy, it is wrong for policy-makers to solely use this metric.
This is largely because the metric of ‘effectiveness’ is an acutely narrow-viewed one. Effectiveness measures the extent to which the specific problem that the government are targeting has been removed or reduced by government policy. What it does not measure are the external impacts that policies, in their pursuit of the specific problem at hand, have on society as a whole. Ignorance of these crucial impacts brings the possibility for policies to create more net harm onto society than it brings benefit.
This should be quite obvious. A responsible farmer would consider the environmental impacts of habitat loss before razing forests for farmland. A responsible parent would consider the impacts that tiger parenting has on their child’s mental health before employing it. In a similar fashion, responsible lawmakers ought to consider the external consequences of their policies, along with their effectiveness towards a specific problem before passing them. Even if a policy can effectively destroy the problem it is tasked to deal with, it may still be undesirable if the net loss in utility through external consequences outweighs the potential benefits of removing the initial problem. This is often called government failure — where the actions of governments aimed at solving one problem creates a new set of problems. Policy effectiveness is simply insufficient in determining the desirability of policies.
Although most governments do take this into consideration, it is too often that we hear defenses to criticisms of government policy centering around effectiveness. Claims such as ‘the ends justify the means’, ‘we want to solve the problem at all costs’, and ‘the problem has been mitigated, so we should continue the policy’ are inevitably simplifications of ‘we should only care about effectiveness’. This mindset is especially endemic in authoritarian nations such as the PRC, where the fetishization of attaining tangible ‘goals’ in Five Year Plans has spurred blind pursuits of successes that do not take into account social and environmental external consequences.
Ideally, lawmakers should measure the overall impacts of a policy on society, instead of fixating their eyes on solving a specific problem.
教育者必须先受教育— Those who educate must first be educated.
— 毛主席 (Chairman Mao)
The imperative for governments to consider broad impacts rather than narrow goals distinctly reveals the lunacy of Hong Kong’s zero-covid strategy.
As of the time that I am writing (Jan. 2022), Hong Kong’s coronavirus policy is the strictest in the world. And unnecessarily so. Travellers from foreign countries who enter Hong Kong are mandated to spend up to 21 days in a designated quarantine hotel regardless of their covid vaccination status. Even after the quarantine period, travellers are required to go into a phase of ‘self-monitoring’, where they are requested to avoid contact with other humans as far as possible. Throughout this entire process, an incoming traveller may have taken up to nine PCR tests. What is worse is that the 21 nights in a quarantine hotel and first PCR test have to be paid for by the traveller themselves.
I will not go into the effects of this policy on income inequality (especially for foreign domestic helpers), as I think that this is quite obvious. But one important thing to consider is that this policy has not even been implemented efficiently. Due to the unnecessarily short list of approved ‘quarantine hotels’, spaces for rooms for incoming travellers are almost always full for the following months. Incoming travellers continually face the nightmare of coordinating their fight for hotel room spaces with flight bookings, potential cancellations, and PCR test bookings. A quick look at the Hong Kong Quarantine Support Facebook group will be enough to enlighten you of a multitude of quarantine horror stories.
Furthermore, Hong Kong’s quarantine policy is not consistent with science and international health standards. It is true that mandatory quarantine is a good way of insulating imported covid cases from the public, but the point I am making is not that quarantine as a concept is inconsistent with science, but more to do with the length and nature of it. The incubation period for the virus is on average 5–6 days, 97.5% of the carriers of covid show symptoms by the 11th day of infection, and only three of all imported covid-19 cases in Hong Kong were detected after the first 7 days of quarantine. With the Delta Variant, the incubation period of the virus is even shorter, effectively reducing the risk of shortened quarantine. The Hong Kong Department of Health (HKDH) has, in their floppy attempt at justifying extending quarantine times from 2 to 3 weeks this Autumn, pointed to an instance where an inbound traveller was tested positive after their 21 days of quarantine. The HKDH celebrated this event, as it gave them the necessary political capital to double down on quarantine lengths. But the story is not as simple as the arch-opportunists in government would like to present. The infection of the traveller was in fact attributed to contact with a positive case in the hotel right before they were released. Lack of adequate social distancing in the traveller’s quarantine hotel exposed them to other travellers who carried the virus. So in fact, the infection took place inside the quarantine hotel, and not before arrival. So it really begs the question — what is Hong Kong basing these draconian measures on? It definitely cannot be the science that the rest of the world follows. The entire system is built upon wanting to create a thick wall between covid and Hong Kong society.
But let’s assume that by some act of God, that Hong Kong’s quarantine policy is in fact consistent with science. Even so, the policy is not even consistent with itself! At the beginning of summer, the UK faced a growing wave of covid cases. In response to news like this, a responsible government would likely address the issue and pass a clear program/policy to tackle it. But this was not what the Hong Kong government did. In the span of 10 days, the Hong Kong government went from a 7-day quarantine for UK incoming travellers to a 21-day quarantine and finally to a complete ban on UK flights and travellers. This utterly embarrassing flip-flop of government policy highlights the obvious lack of a policy framework by the HKDH. Quarantine policies are passed out of pure instinct rather than careful examination, having zero grounding in any objective metric of measuring risk.
Speaking of risk, the risk levels assigned to countries are also inconsistent. In May this year, Hong Kong categorised the UK as being in Category A2 “Very-high risk”. At the time, this meant that arrivals from the UK would have to complete 21 days of quarantine in a designated quarantine hotel. However, most of Europe and the United States remained in a lower Category B “High risk” tier, which meant a 14-day quarantine rather than a 21-day quarantine. This would be fine given that arrivals from the UK were ‘riskier’ than those from other countries. But through every objective measure, they were not! Figure 1 shows a table comparing the relative caseloads by country on the 6th of May. Note that in every other country in the “High-risk tier”, the infection rate was many times higher than that of the UK. On the basis of the number of cases, the government’s risk categorisation fails.
But what about the Kent variant? Wasn’t it the case that Hong Kong simply wanted to target the new variant originating in the UK? Well, it’s not that simple. It is clear in Figure 2 that at the time, the Kent variant of the virus had already become the dominant variant in almost every other European/North American country. The risk of a traveller from the UK bringing over the new variant is no larger than that of a traveller from the US, or Belgium, or Sweden.
Inconsistency also occurs across national boundaries with China. The Hong Kong government has continuously nagged about wanting to reopen the border with China by aligning the city’s quarantine policies with the Mainland, but yet they have made zero attempts at creating consistency with the policies of the Mainland. I remember this summer when I decided to return to Hong Kong from the UK, I had to go to Switzerland for three weeks to ‘washout’ the UK traveller ban, and then still spend another two weeks in a quarantine hotel. In total, I (fully vaccinated by the way) spent five long weeks just to get back to the place I called home. However, my unvaccinated neighbours only had to go through 2 weeks of quarantine to get back to Mainland China. What doesn’t make sense is why Hong Kong is desperately trying to prove itself to the Chinese government through adopting policies that even the Chinese government would consider extreme.
The clearest case of cognitive dissonance in Hong Kong’s quarantine policy is the fact that they promoted the uptake of vaccines only to refuse the entry of those who were disproportionately more likely to have taken the vaccine and put their trust in official government policy. Students studying abroad and frequent travellers were one of the first groups to be able to access covid-19 jabs in Hong Kong. A large proportion of this demographic did indeed put their trust in the government that they would relax quarantine measures on them upon their return. But until recently, the policy that Hong Kong adopted was that no matter whether or not you contributed to the government’s early vaccination drive, you still had to serve the same amount of quarantine or face the same travel bans. Is it the case that the Hong Kong government doesn’t trust its own vaccines?
物极必反 (wù jí bì fan) — When things become extreme, they will always head the opposite direction.
The idiocy of Hong Kong’s covid response is not confined just to its quarantine policy. Its policy for stopping the internal spread of the virus is just as unnecessarily extreme.
Let us begin with Hong Kong’s covid isolation policy if you were to test positive. In (almost) all countries in the world, when you test positive for covid, you have to isolate. I think that this makes sense. But the way that the Hong Kong government enforces self-isolation transforms a completely fine policy into a senseless concoction that even a 5-year-old would find fault in. If you test positive for the virus, you have to spend at least 10 days in a quarantine hospital, most of your close contacts (which by the way, can include your entire housing block of up to a thousand people) have to be quarantined in Penny’s Bay quarantine camp to up to 21 days, and most of your close contacts’ close contacts have to quarantine as well for up to 21 days. Even when you recover from the virus, tested negative for covid multiple times consecutively, and have been tested as having a viral load scientifically calculated to imply that you cannot transmit the virus anymore, you still have to spend another 14 days in Penny’s Bay quarantine camp. Restaurants, shops, offices that you have been to have to be shut for 2 weeks, with anyone who has been to those places required to test and isolate.
Furthermore, if you have travelled overseas from Hong Kong (for example, if you are returning to university in the UK), and you have been tested positive for covid in the 21 days since you left Hong Kong, all of your close contacts, close contacts’ close contacts, and probably your entire housing block will be required to isolate or be sent to Penny’s Bay quarantine camp. According to the HKDH, this is a measure to make sure that there was no spread of the virus when the person was in Hong Kong. Note that when you travel overseas, you have to take multiple tests before you can board the plane and land, so there have already been many safety nets to catch the virus out before the person leaves the city. This policy is in clear disregard to the very real reality that if someone has been in the UK for 21 days and has been infected, they probably got it within the 21 days in the UK. Isn’t it funny how the HKDH continues to boast about the city’s low number of cases whilst technically admitting that if someone tests positive in the UK, that there is a higher chance that they got the virus in Hong Kong 21 days ago than in the UK?
Don’t get me wrong, I think that self-isolation is a necessary measure to fight the spread of covid, but any policies to do with self-isolation have to be in line with science. Hong Kong’s isolation policies are not in line with science. Not only is it absolutely arrogant to brush aside the hard, scientific fact that after your viral load has fallen below a certain amount that you can no longer transmit the virus, and to still require patients (who have recovered) to isolate for another 14 days, there is no scientific proof that such measures have to be extended so far as to close contacts’ close contact’s. Recently, entire primary school children, as young as 9-years-old, in many Discovery Bay schools were sent to Penny’s Bay quarantine centre to pre-empt the spread of the virus. Last week, a case in a quarantine hotel sent every quarantining person in the hotel to Penny’s Bay for 14 extra days of isolation, regardless of how long they had left in their three week sentence.
It seems like even if the chance of spread is negligibly low, as long as the chance is higher than 0.00%, everyone has to quarantine. No other country takes such harsh measures, especially given that every one of the positive-case’s close contacts has been fully vaccinated. Yet again, the Hong Kong government shuts its eyes to the vaccine certificates that they themselves issue to vaccine recipients. It is insane how Hong Kong’s medical ‘experts’ hold their head up high with this policy, while their advice does not stand in line with any other experts in any other country.
And it’s not like Penny’s Bay is some sort of Disneyland utopia (although it is georgaphically close by). It is a grueling 21-day experience in a small, claustrophobic room with undercooked food and with terrible internet connection. There have been cases where residents’ pets have died under the care of quarantine facility workers — presumably from forgetting to feed them. Also, along with many quarantine hotels, if there is a fire/fire alarm that goes off, you are ordered not to evacuate immediately, but to stay in your room to wait for someone to escort you out in a covid-safe way. So it seems that the HKDH prefers people to burn to death than to get covid. The mental health effects of isolation in this way are very clear. Humans are naturally social animals and isolation for unnecessarily long periods of time only traps our souls in an inescapable cage locked by the iron fist of a brainless government. The Hong Kong government continues to arbitrarily put people on house arrest, even though the only crime they have committed was choosing to stay in zero-covid Hong Kong.
Hong Kong went through many phases of social distancing measures, most of which were reactionary measures amid periods of rising cases. During times when cases spiked (in the HK context this only means a few dozen cases per day), social gatherings were restricted to about 2 or 4 people per group and mandatory mask laws. In my opinion, this response was correct (at the time). If the government is able to enforce a policy like this, then it would be a good way of reducing infection rates. To some extent this was the case with Hong Kong — most people were disciplined enough to follow the rules and waves of cases were brought down relatively quickly. But the apparent success of social distancing policies as a whole does not justify every individual measure that the government employed. In the same way that the Allies employed a large set of tactics to defeat Nazi Germany, the success of the campaign as a whole does not mean that individual actions like the bombing of Dresden were just and right. Hong Kong has its fair share of absolutely retarded lockdown measures.
For one, it employed regional lockdowns of city blocks where there were positive or suspected positive covid cases. The boundaries that were drawn by the government to include ‘high-risk’ blocks of flats and residential buildings were absolutely arbitrary. Does anyone seriously believe that in the most densely populated urban environment in the world with a bustling city life, drawing a ‘box’ around an affected building on a map will stop everyone who has been infected from spreading it? This policy would only work given that between the time that the infected person arrived in the area and the time the government reacted, there was no movement of people in and out of the zone. But is it not the case that due to the unique context of Hong Kong where people enter, leave, and pass through areas in the city all the time, that if anyone in the ‘high-risk’ zone were to be infected, that they would clearly have transmitted the virus to others outside of the zone? Seriously — we are not in the vast Central Asian steppes. We are in Hong Kong.
What this policy meant was that people who were literally just passing through a ‘high-risk’ zone, without warning, were kept inside the lockdown area overnight, with some sent to quarantine. People who were getting a small bite to eat at Circle K, people who were getting a haircut, people who were walking home from school were all caught up in this mess.
The Hong Kong government also has this weird obsession with imposing a ban on dine-in services at night time. Recently following a covid cluster at a group lunch meeting, the Hong Kong government decided to ban all dine-in activities at restaurants from 6pm onwards. Again, this policy is baseless. The HKDH thinks that people will only begin going out and eating at restaurants from 6pm onwards. By what shape of magic do people actually only start eating at 6pm? People will still eat and mingle at lunchtime. After all, the event that triggered this policy was a lunch event! The furthest this policy can go is a small reduction of the likelihood of transmissibility. Maybe the Hong Kong government should stop obsessing over its citizens eating dinner and maybe start focusing on stopping its own officials from attending huge super spreader events.
These are but some of the empty-headed social distancing measures employed by the Hong Kong government. In fact, the only good policies that we have seen (such as mask-wearing) that are backed by science and research are the ones that every other country employs! The HKDH likes to take an originally good policy and stretch it out in the weirdest and most ludicrous manner possible, so much so that it loses its original value as a successful anti-covid response.
But I will go further and argue that even these policies may not be appropriate in the current context of the pandemic. Two years ago, we did not have vaccines that have up to 95% effectiveness (well, unless you have Sinovac!) we did not have a covid antiviral drug, and we did not have a variant of covid that is actually much less lethal.
Maybe it is time that we live with covid. Maybe it is time to drop the fear of a killer that is slowly losing its lethality whilst we gain an upper hand to medically prevent and treat covid. Almost every country in the world is loosening restrictions while Hong Kong and China continuously trap themselves in a bubble of fear and extremist anti-covid ideology. Some may point to Omicron’s increased transmissibility as reason to lock down further. But look at the actual damage that Omicron has done to countries like South Africa and the UK. Sure, cases have risen significantly, but most of these are mild and asymptomatic. Deaths have not followed the trajectories of previous variants of covid. We simply have more ways to defend ourselves from covid. Omicron is simply less fatal. The death rate for Omicron is about 0.2%, only slightly higher than the annual flu, down from Delta’s 7%. Why are we still treating this like Ebola on steroids?
殃及池鱼 (Yāng jí chí yú) — Draining a fish pond to search for some treasure would kill off all the fish as a consequence.
I have talked extensively about the impact that unnecessary covid restrictions have on one’s day-to-day life, including the mental health damage it induces and the financial consequences for those having to pay for weeks of hotel quarantine. But what government officials tend to say in response to this is that this is a small yet worthy sacrifice for what is a large benefit onto Hong Kong as a whole. They point to Hong Kong’s recovering retail sector as evidence of a growing economy and as a defense for their draconian policies.
Hong Kong officials, however, fail to understand the long-run impacts of keeping extreme anti-covid measures in place.
Economically, Hong Kong is slowly losing its touch. Hong Kong’s economy is arguably based on its high levels of economic freedom — low taxes, low levels of financial regulation, and freedom of movement of capital and labour. This way, the country has been able to attract countless foreign firms and skilled professionals into the city over the past few decades, creating a financial sector that is unrivaled by any other city in Asia. This is what drives the Hong Kong economy. But in light of Hong Kong’s unpredictable yet strict lockdown measures, inhumane quarantine regime, and lack of a roadmap for lifting restrictions, companies have already started to signal their discomfort in staying in the Hong Kong market. Firms have to deal with huge delays in human labour when their employees from abroad have to quarantine for weeks, rising costs from reimbursing them for their quarantine stay, as well as product shipment delays at HK customs. This clearly deters foreign direct investment from coming into Hong Kong as it has lost its value as a quick financial pitstop for professionals. In the long run this will be extremely harmful to the economy as firms have already started leaving the city for alternatives such as Singapore.
The Hong Kong government has tried to defeat this notion of long run economic harm by pointing to their quarantine exemption scheme, where CEOs of large companies and people who are ‘vital to the economy’ of Hong Kong are exempted from mandatory quarantine. Their argument is that as long as Hong Kong appeases these individuals, that firms will not have much reason to leave. But this dodges the important realisation that companies do not function as one-man dictatorships. Even if you are able to help a CEO avoid quarantining, how about the rest of the company and its employees? Companies do not function as a result of one CEO, it requires the participation of employees at multiple levels of the firm. Even though a CEO may be appeased by Hong Kong’s treatment of them, the fact still stands that these companies are losing money from staying in Hong Kong — something that they probably care more about than one man’s trip to the city.
But even if we were to accept that these quarantine exemptions are successful in keeping businesses in Hong Kong, one has to ask whether they are just and fair. The types of people that Hong Kong gives quarantine exemptions to are those who are at the very top of the corporate ladder. For instance, in November 2021, Hong Kong handed the CEO of JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon, a complete quarantine exemption. Along with many other ‘important’ financial executives, Hong Kong has essentially given the people who can do their jobs the easiest online the ability to dodge a rule that applies to the common man. Maybe it is my lack of knowledge in business management and administration, but isn’t it the case that the managerial jobs that CEOs have to do one of the easiest done through Zoom, Microsoft Office, and Email? There is simply no need to exempt these people from quarantine when there are foreign domestic helpers that need to be physically present at their workplace who are subjected to weeks of grueling quarantine.
Furthermore, Hong Kong was caught up in controversy when they gave actress Nicole Kidman a quarantine exemption in August 2021 for her to film a scene for an upcoming movie. The HKDH’s defense was that her film was beneficial to the ‘tourism’ industry of the city. So much for prioritising people who are ‘vital’ to the economy of Hong Kong!
Speaking of tourism, the government has essentially killed off this vibrant industry. Tourism has always been an important part of Hong Kong’s economy and identity. Its vibrant mix of Western and Chinese culture, unparalleled by any other city in East Asia has consistently attracted the attention of foreign tourists. From hikes up Tai Mo Shan to the foot of the Big Buddha, and from the bustling financial district of Admiralty to the wet markets of Sham Shui Po, it is the ability for foreigners to feel both at home as well as experiencing a new culture that really puts Hong Kong on the map. But clearly, with a ban on anyone without a valid residence/work reason to arrive in Hong Kong, tourists have stopped coming since the beginning of the pandemic. Not only has this killed off the image of Hong Kong being a ‘global city’ perfect for a short trip, but it has also destroyed the countless tourism agencies, hotels, restaurants, airlines (Cathay Pacific in particular), and leisure facilities that financially rely on tourism to survive.
It is unfortunate to see how the tourism sector has so little bargaining power to affect government policy in Hong Kong. In every other democracy in the world, the tourism sector has had some form of power to pressure governments for relaxations in travel restrictions. Meanwhile, in the so-called ‘democracy’ of Hong Kong, there is absolutely no participation in decision-making by the tourism sector, causing even the largest of companies like Cathay Pacific to face heavy losses. Hong Kong has simply lost its place as a global city of international significance, and the only one to blame is its own inept government.
An argument that I hear quite often from supporters of this kind of strict government policy is that it is fine for Hong Kong to cut itself off from the rest of the world as long as it can open up its border with China. Their point is that because China is much larger economically and that much of Hong Kong’s international trade is with China, that Hong Kong should prioritise restoring quarantine-free travel across the HK-China border. There are many problems with this approach. Firstly, it is not true that China itself can sustain Hong Kong’s economy. If we are going on the basis of GDP, despite having 1/3 of China’s population, the EU has a higher GDP than China. If we are going on the basis of the proportion of international trade, then China actually only constitutes 51% of Hong Kong’s foreign trade. But why are we even talking about the movement of capital and products? These products are not subject to weeks of quarantine. Instead, we should look at the impact of the movement of labour. As mentioned earlier, many skilled foreigners who are vital to Hong Kong’s tertiary sector are now unable to travel into the city to work. And I dare say that the most valued employees are those who are not necessarily from China. Even if we were to open the border with China and have Chinese professionals be able to travel into the city to work, we would still be sacrificing the countless professionals from the Western world as well as other parts of Asia.
Furthermore, all of the supposed benefits that opening the border with China would give are dependent on them actually opening the border. On this front, the Hong Kong government has failed once more. For almost a year and a half the Hong Kong government has been trying to restore quarantine free travel with the Mainland, and until now it has failed to do so. Each time there is a negotiation with the Mainland government, there is always a reason for one side to end negotiations and reject a border reopening. Often, this is due to a huge covid outbreak (note: in the HK/Chinese government’s minds a ‘huge outbreak’ is anything more than one case) on either side of the border. Just last month the Hong Kong government teased its populous with a promise that they could get passes to travel to China soon. But who would have guessed, that plan has failed once again and the border will remain closed for the foreseeable future.
Hong Kong should stop trying to negotiate with a counterparty with unrealistic and unreasonable standards and begin negotiations with other countries.
为除蜘蛛网烧毁房子 (Wèi chú zhī zhū wang shāohui fángzi) — Removing a cobweb by burning the house down.
When I present my arguments to those in support of zero-covid, they often accept the negative consequences of such policies but then conclude that it is still preferable to the alternatives as Hong Kong has been able to keep the virus at bay. They often reference the extremely high covid death rates in other countries like the UK and the US as proof of the supremacy of zero-covid. In fact, this is the argument of choice of the Hong Kong government, which defends zero-covid strategies with a utilitarian calculus that deems any death more regrettable than a loss of ‘freedoms’.
Although it is true that countries like the UK and the US handled the pandemic horribly, this fact alone is not enough to prove the aptness of zero-covid. The zero-covid argument relies on the huge assumption that anti-covid measures are binary and not graded. In essence, they rely on the idea that it is either zero-covid or the US, and nothing else — that if we do not do zero-covid we will become the US and adopt its high death rate. Realistically, this is far from reality. There is a wide spectrum of anti-covid strategies that a government can take, with zero-covid at one extreme end. Why not take a strict but steady approach to covid like Korea or Japan? Why not eventually shift to mass vaccination and living with covid like Singapore?
Here I return to the idea that just because a policy removes a problem does not mean that it is the best and most appropriate policy. Akin to burning a house down in order to remove a cobweb, the policies adopted by the Hong Kong government are far too extreme and go beyond the scope of being proportionate.
This idea of policy proportionality is vital in public policy — we do not want policies that are too relaxed that they fail to solve a problem, but we also do not want policies that are too strict that they waste resources and create new problems. If my previous metaphor of the cobweb did not persuade you, consider the following comparisons:
- Should we apply the death penalty to jaywalking to deter jaywalking?
- Should we allow policemen to raid an individual’s home if they are accused of stealing a packet of chips from 7–11?
- Should we make citizens who litter work 1000 hours of public service?
Clearly, the answer to these questions is (hopefully): “no, because they are too extreme”.
Shouldn’t the same logic be applied to zero-covid? Is it not the case that the marginal utility to society gained by adopting zero-covid over a Singapore-style approach is so minute that the harms (that I mentioned above) greatly outweigh the benefits? Despite this conclusion being clear as day even to a 9-year-old, the Hong Kong government continues to ignore the reality that their zero-covid policy is supported by baseless evidence and logic.
兵久而國利者，未之有也。 — There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.
— 孙子 (Sun Tzu)
Personally, Hong Kong’s zero-covid strategy has given me a multitude of difficulties. From having to pay for a total of 6 weeks of quarantine over the past two years to having to reschedule (and pay for!) new flights, PCR tests, and hotel bookings following last-minute changes to quarantine policies, it is hard to be a HK resident studying overseas in times of covid.
Because of this, what angers me most is the level of arrogance of the Hong Kong government and (a large proportion) of the local populous who do not need to travel overseas and have not been subject to quarantine. Covid outbreak after covid outbreak in Hong Kong, it has always been us overseas students blamed for ‘bringing’ the virus into the city. If it isn’t us, it’s foreign domestic helpers, ethnic minorities, or airline staff. In the eyes of the Hong Kong government, it is us to blame for covid. Much like how the overseas Asian community is often the covid scapegoat for Western racists, the sense that I get from locals is that we should not come back to spread the virus.
We feel betrayed by our own government. We are still HK residents, but yet we are treated like some foreign ‘other’ where our unique sacrifice is an obligation to cleanse ourselves of a sin that we did not commit. The fact that the Hong Kong government still refuses to expand the rooms available at quarantine hotels to bring the supply of rooms up to the demand for rooms shows the utter lack of care that the government has for us. It seems like they do not even want us to come back. And even if we do, it is we who should be the ones to face the higher costs of renting a hotel room for 21 days. If the covid situation overseas is so apocalyptic that Hong Kong requires extreme quarantine measures, then isn’t the government essentially condemning its own citizens and residents to a fate of covid and death when it actively tries to stop them from coming home?
We even feel betrayed by many local Hong Kongers who still refuse to take the covid vaccine. As a result of zero-covid being too effective in ridding the city of covid cases, there is little threat of being infected with the virus, thus reducing much of the incentive for people in Hong Kong to get vaccinated. Combined with an irrational fear of vaccine side-effects, this has caused vaccination rates in Hong Kong to be one of the lowest in the developed world. It is ridiculous to me that those who have yet to be vaccinated complain of covid cases seeping through the cracks in quarantine. These people have not contributed to the herd immunity that we helped create, but are actively benefitting from it! The Hong Kong government should stop focusing on short-run quarantine measures and focus on the long-run reopening of the country, starting with vaccinations.
Arrogance goes further when government officials openly boast of their successful zero-covid strategy, condemning any and every foreign country’s covid policy to be inferior to theirs. It is a show of utter idiocy for one nation to think their policy, which is not followed by any other country in the world, is infinitely superior to the alternative without consideration.
Undeniably, Hong Kong’s zero-covid strategy is riddled with idiocy. It is neither a proportionate response to covid nor one that is based on scientific fact. It actively harms the city’s unique economic and cultural identity whilst condemning innocent and unlucky citizens to an inhumane trial of fire at Penny’s Bay.
With Omicron at Hong Kong’s doorsteps and quarantine facilities filling up rapidly, I am not certain of what the government’s next move will be. What is certain, however, is that if it chooses to double down on its zero-covid policy and continue to sacrifice the fundamental rights of its citizens in exchange for jack-all utility, it will fall into a destitute hole of Imperial Qing-style isolationism.