I have always maintained that the right approach to dealing with COVID-19 must include strict quarantining for arrivals from areas with new infections at all our border points and those in close contact with infected patients. I have been hoping that by doing this, combined with social distancing, widespread use of masks by the public, and temporary shutdowns in order to cut the chain of local infections, we would eventually come to the stage of zero local infections. Provided that we keep zero local infections for 28 days, then it will be safe to open up our borders with those countries or regions that have achieved the same. This is exactly what has happened to Macao, which declared that as of July 15, quarantine is no longer required for visitors traveling between Guangdong province and Macao. This is great news for Macao’s tourist and gaming industries. The stock prices of all operators of Macao’s hotels and casinos jumped. The outlook for the Macao economy suddenly brightened up.
Sadly for Hong Kong, we are not as fortunate. Even though zero local infections had been achieved and even though we had sometimes been able to maintain the record for 14 days, each time, our hope to maintain zero local infections was dashed. In the last week, we even saw serious local outbreaks with unknown origins.
Some people blame this on weariness of our social distancing and mask wearing. But the holes in our current quarantine policy also play a part. Unless we plug these holes, all our effort at social distancing, all our effort in giving away money to alleviate the pain from the economic hemorrhage, will come to naught. There will be no end to the economic pain, and we can expect that many businesses will fail, and that the unemployment rate will see a spike. If the economy does not recover, our fiscal deficit will not disappear. We will drain out all our fiscal reserves.
There are some questions and they must be answered.
The first question is: Since we all know that home quarantine is highly unsafe, why do we still opt for home quarantine instead of quarantining at dedicated sites? Hong Kong is noted for its dense population. Even if the quarantined person does not violate quarantine rules, his family members who live in the same house do not need to observe quarantine. We must not ignore the chance that the virus will be passed on to a family member who then will pass it to others in the community. We have many hotels that have very low occupancy because we have no tourists. Why don’t we reserve some hotels for the purpose, as is done on the mainland?
I am sure Hong Kong has the resources to contain the pandemic. Resources spent on containing the pandemic must come first. If we do not have the will and commitment to contain the pandemic, the cost upon all of us will be much greater than any savings from not committing the necessary resources to do so
My second question is: Although we do need to keep our city open, because our supplies have to be flown in, trucked in, or shipped in, can we do better in containing the risks of possible infected crew members, drivers, captains, or pilots (who are exempt from quarantine) spreading the disease in the community?
My third question is: Wuhan was able to test all its 11 million residents for COVID-19 infections — we have a much smaller population; why can’t we do more tests? The Wuhan massive test campaign as “10 days of battle” began on May 14 after Wuhan reported a cluster of six new cases on the weekend of May 9, after 35 days without reporting any new infections in the city. In order to complete the task in 10 days, the city adopted a pooled testing method that enabled health workers to assess as many as 10 samples simultaneously. If a positive result came from a batch, authorities then followed up with assessments on each person in the group. Testing pooled samples enables more tests with existing kits while still providing sufficient diagnostic accuracy, according to a recent article in The Lancet.
A poor African country, Rwanda, has also adopted this method, and its achievement in containing the pandemic is truly impressive. According to Sabin Nsanzimana, director general of the Rwanda Biomedical Center, an arm of the Ministry of Health that’s in charge of tackling COVID-19, also used “pooled testing”. There, nasal swabs from 20-25 people are pooled and tested for the virus. If they get a positive result, then all the swabs that went into that initial vial are tested individually to identify who is infected.
Since recording its first case in mid-March, the country of 12 million has recorded just over 1,200 cases. Aggressive testing and dedicated quarantine facilities have allowed Rwanda to achieve this, notwithstanding a per capita GDP of merely $825 last year. If Rwanda can do this, there is no reason why Hong Kong cannot do it.
I am sure Hong Kong has the resources to contain the pandemic. Resources spent on containing the pandemic must come first. If we do not have the will and commitment to contain the pandemic, the cost upon all of us will be much greater than any savings from not committing the necessary resources to do so. This is also the view of Dr Zhang Wenhong, head of the center of infectious diseases, Huashan Hospital of Fudan University.
The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Research Institute, Lingnan University.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS