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Monday, August 10, 2020, 02:50
Mass virus tests give Hong Kong a mainland look, but is it bad?
By Alex Rong
Monday, August 10, 2020, 02:50 By Alex Rong

Hong Kong has never looked more like “just another Chinese city” than it does in headline stories about the free coronavirus tests for all local residents.

Mass testing, mainland experts and “cabin hospitals” are hallmarks of the anti-virus strategy that has served the Chinese mainland well so far. Lockdowns, though vehemently criticized in January as “draconian” and “human rights violations” by politicians from afar, have long ceased to be uniquely Chinese.

As Hong Kong mulls replicating a watered-down version of Beijing’s and Wuhan’s feat of testing millions of people in a matter of days, to suspicious eyes, news reports on the mainland-sponsored tests make the city look dangerously like its peers across the border.

This fear has underpinned opposition to the mainland’s helping hand from some local healthcare workers, who at the same time are looking out carefully for their own vested interests. Though artificial issues such as a language barrier and different writing systems had to be manufactured as justification for their effort to forestall such an undertaking.

But is looking like the mainland so bad? The Chinese mainland has managed to flatten the curve, except for sporadic spikes, which are expected as we come to terms with the real possibility that the virus cannot be eradicated. The economy is back on an even keel, with 3.2 percent year-on-year growth in the second quarter, after a 6.8 percent contraction three months earlier. Movie theaters are reopening, grossing 100 million yuan ($14 million) in box office receipts in less than a week. People are traveling again, though cautiously avoiding crowds.

The mainland is in an enviable position, both virus control- and economy-wise. In the virus fight, it is months ahead of much of the rest of the world. Hong Kong, being vastly different from Beijing and Wuhan, can’t copy their answers to the pandemic. But there must be some merit to the mainland way that can help the city.

So as Hong Kong grapples with its worst outbreak, amid grim GDP data and a record jobless rate, experienced hands from the other side of the fight should be taken at face value. After all, mainland doctors and lab technicians, with their medical expertise, testing kits, and bags of snacks and washing powder in the suitcase, as shown in an online picture, are here to keep the virus in check, not to enforce secret political agendas.

It’s bizarre that some medical workers claimed local hospitals were adequately staffed, with ample resources, as a pretext to reject mainland assistance, while over 100 patients were on the waiting list for an isolation bed. Several medical practitioners questioned why the mainland mission is exempt from 14-day quarantines despite its personnel being “high risks” who have “come into close contact” with the virus.

This shrewd scramble of science and politics is lamentable, and potentially dangerous to public health.

The prolonged crisis has highlighted the commendable work of medical professionals. It has given the healthcare sector the limelight. But some supposed experts have used the unprecedented public attention, not as an opportunity to address the pressing matters at hand or air their grievances about chronic problems plaguing the sector to eventually effect change, but as a soapbox to make political statements.

Not abusing the power to sway public opinion may prove challenging in a society where choosing a restaurant can be a vote by foot, as businesses are now color-coded as “yellow” (in support of the protest movement) or “not yellow”. But such a bipolar political landscape is exactly why reason and dialogue must prevail, especially when lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Medical experts, being scientists, must be cautious not to lend their voices to politicians or activists on the make. That is clearly the conscious path taken by Dr Anthony Fauci, who is once again the face of the US fight against the coronavirus. In congressional hearings, when grilled about whether “Black Lives Matter” protests spread COVID-19, he confined himself to making general, broad statements. In interviews, for example, when asked whether China can get a vaccine before the US does, he said, “I hope they do. … I hope everybody is trying to get a vaccine, gets it quickly, effectively, and safely. Absolutely. This isn’t a competition to win a game.” No politics; all facts, of which there is a disheartening dearth.

The Chinese mainland is many things. If we call a spade a spade, in terms of virus control, it is the future that many Hong Kong people wish to live in soon. So instead of fussing over political messaging, to borrow a phrase from the Hong Kong Nurses General Union, it’s time to put aside “pride and prejudice”.

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

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