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Tuesday, August 18, 2020, 01:07
Some suggestions on curbing COVID-19 for the city to go forward
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, August 18, 2020, 01:07 By Ho Lok-sang

For a long time, I have been complaining about loopholes in our quarantine requirements, which I worried would soon lead to outbreaks. I was pleasantly surprised that for weeks, local cases had been kept very low and even at zero.

Unfortunately though, my worries were justified. The loopholes proved to be a time bomb that would go off sooner or later. When that time finally came, all the sacrifice that the community had made came to nothing. Economic recovery suddenly became more distant: more businesses had to be closed; more people lost their jobs; and our fiscal reserves had to face another round of bleeding.

It is now clear that if we had been stricter at quarantines, and had effectively blocked infections from entering the community, then we could have lifted most of the measures that are still in place and that continue to hurt the economy and the mental health of Hong Kong people. Many “non-emergency case” patients would also have been spared having to wait much longer for much-needed services such as surgery and therapy. The wait would certainly hurt their health and could even kill them, and would create much anxiety for their family members. 

Recently I saw a headline in Yahoo News that read: “Shocking water park photos emerge as China faces virus spike”. One photo was of a crowded water park in Guiyang, Guizhou province; another was an even more crowded water park in Nanchang, Jiangxi province. When many cities around the world are still under lockdown mode, and when news about new cases was reported in Xinjiang and in Liaoning, and even in Beijing, many people would question whether allowing such huge gatherings is too much.

The fact is: China takes any emergence of cases very seriously and makes every effort to stop COVID-19 from accessing the community. Quarantine is strictly enforced, and large-scale testing is used to help find asymptomatic cases and to stop the transmission

After studying the data and how the Chinese mainland handled the infections, I do not think the huge gatherings are excessive. I think that life should be allowed to go back to normal as long as the spread of the pandemic is effectively blocked at all potential entry points. Once the virus is effectively blocked and there have not been new cases for more than 28 days, the place is safe and there will be no need for social distancing at all. Both Jiangxi and Guizhou had been COVID-19 free for 140 days as of Sunday. Why shouldn’t life get back to normal? 

The Yahoo News article was published on Aug 3. It was still talking about the re-emergence of infections in Beijing. But as of Sunday, Beijing has been COVID-19-free for nine consecutive days. All of Xinjiang with the exception of Urumqi currently has no existing COVID-19 cases. The fact is: China takes any emergence of cases very seriously and makes every effort to stop COVID-19 from accessing the community. Quarantine is strictly enforced, and large-scale testing is used to help find asymptomatic cases and to stop the transmission. 

Macao has been very successful, and now is able to lift quarantines mutually with visitors from and to Guangdong. We should emulate Macao’s success. 

Of course, social distancing is right for Hong Kong at this juncture, now that we still have tens of new local cases each day. The recent surge in cases certainly had much to do with people forgetting social distancing and unwarranted large gatherings indoors. Restaurants that are overcrowded; old age homes and especially privately run, overcrowded homes for the elderly; marketing or training sessions involving large numbers of participants; bars and karaoke parlors, etc., have all been found to harbor significant risks.

At one point, the government allowed restaurants to offer only take-out services the whole day. This was soon found to be unworkable. Working people taking lunch were found forced to eat outside in public places that are hot and unhygienic. Eventually the government changed course, and allowed restaurants to admit at most two people at a table during lunch, but not in the evening. But this is difficult to understand. If two people eating together during lunch is deemed acceptable, certainly the same should be equally acceptable in the evening. As far as I can see, even allowing four people to eat together should not pose a problem. Typically, these people come from the same family, and they are eating together any way at home. Why disallow them “getting together” in restaurants?

Another thing that I do not understand is why even beaches are closed. It is fine to ban parties or group games on our beaches, but why disallow families or people in twos spending time on the beach, which is often a very large open space?

As researchers from Polytechnic University showed recently, the majority of cases in the third wave belong to one or the other of two strains, which represent cases imported from outside of Hong Kong. With this new finding I hope the government has learned how important it is to stop imported cases effectively. By the same token, now that some frozen food has been found to be contaminated with the virus, can we require importers to first kill off viruses with ultraviolet rays before packing them and sending them off to our supermarkets? 

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

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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