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Tuesday, April 07, 2020, 10:28
When tackling the COVID-19 epidemic, what should we do next?
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, April 07, 2020, 10:28 By Ho Lok-sang

Hong Kong has a good chance to beat the COVID-19 outbreak in the next few weeks. Newly added confirmed cases peaked on March 27, when they hit 65. This number has fallen to 17 and 28 on Saturday and Sunday respectively. A surge of imported cases started after the first week of March. This surge had given rise to local cases, and took Hong Kong’s infection rate on a frightening trajectory. Whether we succeed in subduing the epidemic hinges on what we do in the coming four weeks.

While we stand a good chance of controlling it soon, we could spoil the chance as what we did from Feb 24 through the end of the month. During that week, we had almost no local cases whose origin could not be traced (only one such case on Feb 25).  If we had contained all the imported cases then through a fail-safe quarantine and test program, our economy would have been spared the huge damage we now have to suffer.

A fail-safe quarantine and test program is certainly costly to implement. But the cost of failing to implement it is a thousand times greater, and not only in economic terms. A human cost is involved because more infections means more people will die, more families will become broken, and more Hong Kong residents will suffer from depression because of extended social distancing, fear, and financial stress.

Today, the central government is taking no chances. Arrivals with Beijing as their destination are first diverted to some designated cities first, where international arrivals are required to be quarantined at designated facilities and COVID-19 tests are given. Because Hong Kong has so far failed to contain imported cases, some spillover to the community is unavoidable. Hong Kong is now deemed dangerous. Visitors from Hong Kong will have to be quarantined and tested.

A fail-safe quarantine and test program is certainly costly to implement. But the cost of failing to implement it is a thousand times greater, and not only in economic terms

Unable to contain the imported cases, we have now little choice but to endure a de facto shutdown of all our tourist agencies, hotels, bars, meeting places, conferences, recreational facilities, and even near-essential social services like day activity centers for the elderly and rehabilitation programs. The government is spending unprecedented amounts to alleviate the economic pain, but all the relief is close to nothing for those who have experienced almost zero cash flow and still have to pay bills.

Social distancing is necessary now because we had failed to do what was less painful. Shutting down bars and beauty parlors are necessary now for the same reason. Non paid leave is necessary now because otherwise many of our businesses would have to face imminent bankruptcy. I see many who are crying for help because bills have to be paid and mortgage payments are due. To many, the threat of great losses is real and scary.

We need to revive hope.  Because Hong Kong is so international, we bear the brunt of possible imported infections. Once imported, the infections will spill over to the community if they are not isolated.

Looking at the historical data, it has become increasingly clear that what the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance demanded was entirely beside the point.  This trade union went on strike on Feb 5 to demand a “complete closure” of all control points to “save Hong Kong”.  The alliance demanded that all who entered Hong Kong, other than Hong Kong residents, be denied entry, and all Hong Kong residents should be quarantined on their return. As it turned out, quite a few returnee Hong Kong residents defied quarantines, and even when they complied with the quarantine order, home quarantines caused infections to quite a few who were in close contact with them. To me, home quarantine is not only not fail-safe, but also fail-bound.

Some may say that designated quarantine facilities are in short supply, and home quarantine is unavoidable because the number of returning Hong Kong residents is so large. But we have many hotels that are now largely devoid of patrons. The mainland all along used hotels for quarantines. While they may not be ideal, home quarantine is much worse. This is because Hong Kong homes are typically small. Even if people are compliant, you cannot prevent infections of those who maintain close contact with them. The infection of a domestic maid by her employer is a case in point.

I believe using hotels as designated quarantine facilities is offering a win-win outcome for Hong Kong. The hotels asked to take on this role will have an important source of income and their employees will earn a wage. The community is protected from infections due to the spillover from imported cases to the community. Businesses can see a future because there is a good chance the pandemic can be contained in Hong Kong within a short time with all the bitter measures recently introduced. The government can also count on reviving the economy in the second half of the year.

Without effective quarantines, all the sacrifices the community is enduring will come to naught. All the money that the government spends to “alleviate” the economic pain will come to naught. Fail-safe quarantines require security guards to ensure quarantined people are actually isolated during the quarantine period. This will revive hope and make the sacrifices worthwhile.

If we can isolate imported cases and strictly quarantine arrivals, when no local cases are recorded for three to four weeks, we can start opening our borders to jurisdictions that have done the same. More-normal life can then begin.

The author is a senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute at Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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