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Published: 01:43, October 26, 2021 | Updated: 10:01, October 26, 2021
HK's pandemic situation demands tough choices
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:01:43, October 26, 2021 Updated:10:01, October 26, 2021 By Ho Lok-sang

COVID-19 is the biggest immediate challenge the world has faced for a long time. It left all major economies in serious negative growth territory in 2020 with the exception of China — something that even the “once in a century” global financial tsunami did not manage to do. In 2009, China had 8.7 percent growth, and India’s growth rate was close to 6 percent. 

The US was hit badly, but growth managed to fall only 2.5 percent. In 2020, the growth of America was much worse, at -3.5 percent; that of India, -8 percent. Some industries, particularly tourism, were almost entirely shut down, and all airlines recorded record losses.

Even today, although almost all economies will register positive growth this year, many industries are still struggling to survive. A big question is: What should governments do? Should they decide “to live with the virus” and live under “new normal” conditions and open up their economies, or should they decide to shield people from the virus completely, and do whatever is necessary to that end? This is naturally a controversial subject.

The answer, actually, is not as complicated as it looks. Governments should take advantage of all the tools to protect the people subject to the constraints of the reality that they face. One of our neighboring countries that followed the former approach, which is the predominant approach adopted in the West, is Singapore. As of Saturday, the total number of infections was 169,261, with about 300 deaths. With daily infections exceeding 3,000, Singapore has now accepted the COVID-19 vaccine from Sinovac as admissible for immunization records. Although the total infection number is huge, fatalities number only 300, which is somewhat higher than Hong Kong’s 213. Very few of those who died were completely vaccinated, showing that the vaccines have succeeded in protecting lives. Currently, 139,229 have recovered. That leaves the number of existing cases at 29,734. Singapore’s vaccination rate is currently about 169 doses per 100 population. The admission of the Sinovac vaccine for immunization in Singapore, it is hoped, will encourage more elderly Singaporeans, who may have reservation about mRNA vaccines, to get the jab. Singapore’s experience is reassuring for those who believe in the “living with the virus” approach. However, although fatalities appear small, the large number of patients who are presently infected may imply a heavy burden on the healthcare system. This may jeopardize the survival rates of other patients who have to compete with COVID-19 patients for hospital beds and for treatment.

China is the only country on Earth that takes the toughest position in guarding against imported infections, quarantine requirements, tracking down infections, and lately even guarding against possible infections through foods imported via cold chains. Why does China take this route, while virtually no other country does the same? The answer, again, is very simple: China has the option to do so; most other countries do not really have the option. China has the apparatus and the culture to back up this approach. Other countries do not. So this approach is actually not an option for them! In terms of results, China’s record is really the envy of the world: 2.3 percent growth in 2020, and the International Monetary Fund expects China to achieve 8.1 percent growth this year. The eurozone had -6.5 percent growth in 2020, and will probably achieve 4.6 percent growth this year. Hong Kong’s growth rate was -6.1 percent last year, but will probably grow by 5.5 to 6.5 percent this year.

Currently in Hong Kong, 8.99 million doses of vaccines have been administered; 65.1 percent of the population has received full vaccination, while 68.1 percent has had at least the first shot. Like Singapore, the vaccination rate among the elderly is still rather low. Only 14 percent of those over 80 has been completely vaccinated, while about 16 percent have at least taken the first shot.

For Hong Kong, we do have the option to follow the mainland’s example to shield all Hong Kong people from the virus. This is because we have the culture and the apparatus to do that. Some would ask if this would be too costly. This is a legitimate question to ask. If this means that the airline industry and the tourism industry have to be strangled to death, this probably will be too costly. The implications of our losing the air-hub status, and virtually shutting off travel and particularly all business travel are obviously too high. There would be no point in building the third runway, and all the support given to Cathay Pacific so far would be lost. The special administrative region government needs to scientifically examine whether it is possible to take the 100 percent shield approach without sacrificing one of our pillar industries and our air-hub status. Finding ways to alleviate pains for these sectors is vital.

Singapore’s experience is worrying if we ponder over the “living with the virus” approach and if our vaccination rate cannot be lifted up much more. Singapore’s dorms for foreign workers appear to be a hotbed for transmission of the disease. If we decide to live with the virus, we will need to eliminate all such “hotbeds” and everyone will also need to assume more responsibility to comply with requirements to help track infections routes. Scientists, too, will have to develop more-effective vaccines, so that even if infected, few will need hospitalization.

The author is director of the 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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