Although public outrage at Nicole Kidman’s quarantine exemption in Hong Kong has long since dissipated, the questions raised in the wake of her arrival about the management of the Hong Kong-Chinese mainland boundary have yet to quiet down; rather, they have intensified.
Although the Return2hk and the Come2hk programs are currently in place and allow limited forms of quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and the mainland or Macao, it is simply not enough.
The Return2hk program is designed to allow Hong Kong residents returning from the mainland or Macao to be exempted from quarantine, while the Come2hk program allows non-Hong Kong residents arriving in the city from Guangdong province or Macao to be exempt.
While any Hong Kong person over the age of 18 can apply, a daily maximum cap and other conditions must be met. Mainland visitors traveling from “at risk” areas will be ineligible for the Come2hk program. And some parts of the mainland still require Hong Kong visitors to quarantine for a period of either 14 days, or 14 days plus an additional seven days of home stay before free travel is allowed.
The programs are certainly an improvement from the blanket closure of the Hong Kong boundary with the mainland, but a few thousand travelers to and from the mainland is not the answer we seek.
After all, the latest national census has shown that 370,000 Hong Kong people live permanently on the mainland. The number of people barred from meeting their family members must be over 1 million. Both Hong Kong and the mainland are parts of the “one country” despite the “two systems”, so then why are we closing the boundary in this ruthless way?
Toward the end of 2020, the Hong Kong Tourism Board reported an astounding 99.8 percent year-on-year drop in visitors. Given that the mainland accounts for over 60 percent of travelers to Hong Kong, one could imagine the impact on the political, socioeconomic, family and personal levels of the closed boundary.
Hong Kong’s tourism and retail industries have been battered as a result of the pandemic, and boundary closures — the tourism industry has already suffered as a result of the anti-government protests in 2019 — and many from both of these industries have practically got on their knees begging for as much relief of any kind as possible.
Hong Kong’s isolation has also had a negative impact on families trapped on both sides of the boundary, as many families living on either side have been kept apart from their loved ones for nearly two years.
Aside from putting pressure on governments on the various levels — both in Hong Kong and the mainland — to do more, we need to prove that Hong Kong is safe from the virus and is ready to reopen for business.
Our preventative hygiene measures are some of the most stringent in the world and, more often than not, are not to blame for outbreaks.
Internal spreading is not an issue either, as Hong Kong residents are famously vigilant with maintaining preventative measures and high levels of personal hygiene. Masks are worn by nearly everyone, and hand sanitizer is widely available and used frequently by residents.
The crux of the matter is that imported cases are often the source of the various clusters and waves that have plagued the city. Although Hong Kong has often been cited to hold one of the strictest quarantine measures in the world, with “high risk” travelers having to endure 21 days in isolation, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s decisions to exempt selected travelers have often been to blame for lapses.
In addition to Kidman, the CEOs of listed companies, high-flying executives and diplomats have been able to skip quarantine. An exemption is granted from quarantine at least 30,000 times a month, and sometimes as often as 40,000 times a month.
Just last month, a Russian diplomat who was exempt from quarantine tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after landing in Hong Kong. The test result brought an overnight lockdown of his entire residential building.
The only sensible exemptions are those which apply to cross-boundary drivers. And contact tracing and other such measures are still subpar if we consider our vigilance in other areas of prevention.
Universal testing is, as I have repeatedly emphasized, a foolproof way to discover cases early and thus act quickly to quash spreading. It would also boost the confidence of the mainland, which would surely feel reassured about allowing freer travel between the two sides.
We also need to urgently address the shortcomings of the “Leave Home Safe” app, as it currently lacks a tracing function. But even with the presence of a health QR code — which is voluntary in many public places — many residents still choose to fill out paper forms instead of scanning the code. Shockingly, some government departments did not require scanning the health QR code for entry until Monday.
And finally, we all agree that the most obvious form of defense against the virus is high vaccination rates. But at the time of writing, only 65.8 percent of Hong Kong residents are fully vaccinated, and the vaccination rate is remarkably lower in the “80 and above” demographic.
Only 16.5 percent of Hong Kong residents aged 80 and above have received their first dose; the figure drops to 14.7 percent for double vaccinations.
There has been fear and suspicion regarding vaccinations, but increasing numbers of scientific studies espouse the protections afforded by vaccinations.
Although not a 100 percent guarantee against contracting the virus, a vaccination certainly offers a great deal of immunity.
Finally, we ought to address the hostility against people from the mainland that has been brewing within our boundary. There is a long-held belief that some Hong Kong people look down on people from the mainland, and this hasn’t waned with time. A gesture of goodwill from the local people will certainly go a long way. Hong Kong is sinking, and we must as quickly as possible return to our normal relations with the mainland if we are to have any chance of keeping our heads above water.
The author is president of Wisdom Hong Kong, a think tank.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS