Hong Kong’s ham-handed COVID-19 containment policies are becoming dangerous. Measures meant to make the territory’s 7.5 million people feel safe and keep the virus at bay are no longer effective.
The most recent, obvious example is a failure to acknowledge that unvaccinated adults are now the main risk to community transmission. The territory hasn’t been able to substantially boost its inoculation rate of around 40%, nor has it mandated shots for the vulnerable and those most likely to spread the virus, including workers at quarantine hotels and airports.
Recently, the city’s health department confirmed a positive case of an unvaccinated individual who works in an airline lounge. She had no history of travel and carried the L452R mutant strain, present in the delta variant. Her entire housing estate was locked down for compulsory testing overnight. In a news conference, officials pointed to transit passengers as a potential source but didn’t initiate steps to boost shots.
In fact, the government seems to be doing everything but encouraging vaccinations. Earlier this month, it extended the quarantine period — already one of the longest in the world — for travelers arriving from 15 places, including the U.S., that it had previously classified as medium-risk.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam also said the territory would suspend a plan that would allow inbound travelers to shorten their quarantine periods if they received an antibody test. These updated rules were introduced after a vaccinated 38-year-old resident tested positive following a seven-day quarantine — and within weeks of announcing relaxed travel restrictions. Officials went even further, doubling the duration of quarantine for most returning residents.
Hong Kong has maintained a close-to-zero local COVID-19 case count for several weeks. While that looked like a clear success at one point, it doesn’t anymore. The government’s inability to adapt and make decisions transparently, while failing to put in place policies that ultimately will ensure the long-term safety of residents, stands in the way of keeping public trust. The policy flip-flops and missteps, especially in recent days, are a case in point.
As officials tweaked a slew of rules this week, a medical expert suggested that the 38-year-old caught the virus from two individuals who tested positive during their stay at the quarantine hotel when their door was opened. In other words, people are getting infected in the very places that are supposed to keep the community safe — and now the government has mandated even longer stays for incoming travelers.
It’s hard to see the government’s logic or endgame here. The case that sparked the rule changes occurred because of subpar quarantine facilities, not traveling or being on a plane. The shifting guidance hasn’t been backed up by much scientific evidence, just more hypotheses, and officials have done little to explain themselves.
These reactive decisions, without clear information about transmission, are now putting people’s health at risk. Residents quarantining in government-mandated facilities such as hotels, which lack proper ventilation and drainage systems, are bearing the burden — even if they’ve taken every precaution. There are several young, unvaccinated children who don’t have the choice to get a shot currently staying in these hotels. Those working there aren’t required to get vaccinated, but are collecting samples and going from room to room.
As other governments around the world come to terms with the virus as endemic, their rules are evolving. The U.K, for instance, is taking steps to relax various restrictions on activity and lift the fear of COVID-19. Fully vaccinated adults no longer have to self-isolate if they are a close contact of an infected person; instead, they must get tested as soon as possible. Singapore is considering a program that would carefully open its borders. Those countries that aren’t adapting, meanwhile, are struggling to reintegrate. For its part, New Zealand just recently entered into a three-day lockdown after a single individual tested positive, the first community case since February.
Hong Kong can no longer live with the myth of zero COVID-19 and try to bask in the glory of being a success story. The only way forward is with clear policies and transparent decision-making that breed public trust, not resentment.
Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia.
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