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Wednesday, October 28, 2020, 23:41
Cathay Dragon could’ve had a turnaround in fortunes
By Alex Rong
Wednesday, October 28, 2020, 23:41 By Alex Rong

Cathay Dragon’s abrupt demise drove home the grim prospects facing airlines ever since the coronavirus pandemic froze air travel around the world. The regional carrier’s 2,500 employees, now deemed “redundant”, were part of parent Cathay Pacific’s 5,300 job cuts in Hong Kong and 8,500 worldwide.

Cathay Dragon’s misery had company. Over 40 commercial airlines have completely ceased or suspended operations this year, according to travel data provider Cirium. Australia’s second-largest carrier, Virgin Australia, filed for bankruptcy protection back in April, followed by British airline Virgin Atlantic in August. European planemaker Airbus is looking at eliminating at least 15,000 positions.

Dragon’s downfall is a sobering dose of reality at a time when pandemic fatigue has started to set in, with governments running in circles, easing and tightening social-distancing rules, as new COVID-19 infections fluctuate. The news hits home not only because we now see every day how a desperate union seeks to clutch a better deal for remaining staff, but also that the airline had an opportunity to ride out the crisis but missed it.

Cathay Dragon operated routes to the mainland, the only major economy that is now bigger than it was when 2020 began. During the mainland’s eight-day “Golden Week” holiday in early October, 637 million domestic trips were made, 13 million of them by air, a trickle of which could have breathed a lease of life into the gasping Dragon.

Hong Kong’s COVID-19 caseload, at 5,311 as of Wednesday, is not bad when compared with many other open economies. But its sporadic new cases, even one or two every other day, were damaging enough to foil negotiations about resuming quarantine-free passenger flow with neighboring Guangdong province. Guangdong, like other mainland destinations, adopts a “zero case” policy for potential travel-bubble partnerships.

Sporadic spikes are not peculiar to Hong Kong. The mainland city of Kashgar is racing to test all its residents after spotting several asymptomatic patients on Saturday. The port city of Qingdao just nipped an outbreak in the bud by testing its entire population of 10 million in five days shortly after 12 cases emerged. 

Apparently on high alert, the authorities of both cities sprang into action right after the first cases were reported. There’s close to nothing original in their “warp speed” strategy — identify the sources of the infections by universal testing and then quarantine the newly found clusters. We’ve seen it before in Beijing and Wuhan.

For Qingdao, the rapid-fire response helped avert a city lockdown that otherwise would have had to be imposed with asymptomatic carriers out and about in the community. With the patients quarantined and the risk of a community outbreak removed, the city roared quickly back to life. Residents and tourists were out again enjoying the beers and beaches for which the city is best known. 

Hong Kong continues to be pestered by COVID-19 infections, many with untraceable sources, after its universal community testing in September. Of the city’s population of 7.5 million, close to 1.8 million people took part in the voluntary campaign, which eventually identified 42 cases.

The bulk of the Hong Kong residents didn’t show up at the testing centers for various reasons. Many balked at getting swabbed for the virus as the result of a conspiracy theory being thrown around that their DNA would end up in the hands of mainland security officials.

This is despite the fact that the testing staff had no access whatsoever to the personal particulars of participants other than the serial numbers attached to sampling bottles.

Had the city’s testing program been mandatory, as it was in Qingdao, Hong Kong may have had a good chance of at least achieving the target of zero local infections. And this could have inspired confidence in mainland authorities for an arrangement that exempts travelers from the 14-day compulsory quarantine upon arrival. 

Acknowledging there lies the lifeline for tourism- and retail-related businesses, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has moved to lift the quarantine rules for residents returning from the mainland. Rumors that the administration is mulling mandatory mass testing have resurrected hopes for restarting the economy.

But for such a campaign to succeed, it would need the city’s anti-establishment activists and politicians to halt their knee-jerk opposition to any government initiative, often at the trigger word “mainland”. It would also need the extremely polarized general public to use good sense that properly balances politics and science. 

Pretty much like Hong Kong residents, the people of Qingdao have vastly divergent views on city life and do not automatically chime in with government policies. But in the battle against a debilitating virus that is oblivious to politics, they gave good sense and science a chance to prevail and tamed the contagion in a swift manner.  

A drawn-out battle hurts all businesses, including smaller ones whose size would make their collapse less spectacular than that of Cathay Dragon, but no less devastating to their owners and employees. They deserve a chance to turn their fortunes around.

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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