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Published: 01:42, November 30, 2021 | Updated: 14:00, December 01, 2021
Social benefits of COVID-19 policies must outweigh costs
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:01:42, November 30, 2021 Updated:14:00, December 01, 2021 By Ho Lok-sang

There is an ongoing debate about what the best way forward is with regard to COVID-19. It is believed that there are two distinct strategies: the zero-tolerance strategy practiced on the Chinese mainland, and the “living with the virus” strategy popular among Western countries. So far, the former has worked much better in terms of protecting lives and limiting the spread of the pandemic. Those who support the latter argue that life has to go on, normalcy has to return, and that the zero-tolerance strategy is too costly to bear. 

Actually, all the signs suggest that humanity will have to live with the virus. There is little likelihood that COVID-19 will disappear the way smallpox did. However, living with the virus has been misunderstood. Although we will co-exist with the virus, we need to weigh every policy option in terms of costs and benefits. A policy option whose social benefit is higher than the social cost should be adopted. A policy option whose social cost is higher than the social benefit should be dismissed. The evaluation of social costs and benefits must be scientifically rigorous. Risk of outbreaks that could put excessive pressure on the healthcare system must be contained. Although we do not have perfect information, many policy decisions are clearly too strict, while many other decisions are clearly too lenient.

The weighing of costs against benefits should be the way forward, even though new variants are appearing. The initial data suggests that the latest variant is much more contagious than earlier variants. According to the World Health Oranization, “the epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant (dubbed ‘Omicron’).”    

Let me venture with a couple of hypotheses.  First, why have virtually all dangerous variants first emerged in developing countries? The Delta variant originated in India. Omicron originated in South Africa. My conjecture, which deserves to be scientifically investigated, is that the vaccines were unevenly distributed. Poorer countries were given a disproportionately low supply of the vaccines for a long time, and they are mostly populous. This gives the virus plenty of time and opportunity to mutate. Not availing poorer and populous countries with the vaccines apparently carries a huge social cost. The social cost of rich countries monopolizing the vaccines and undersupplying developing countries may be much higher than the benefit. This needs to change. 

Second, many Western countries were too shortsighted. Although we all want normalcy, it is not an option right now. Imagining that the virus has now been contained so we can, based on the immunity built up with high vaccination rates, dispense with all other protective measures that can guard us against infections is simply wrong. Caution is always necessary, as many developments have yet to unfold. There is no room for arrogance in the face of the force of nature.

The recent flaring up of infections in Europe and in the United States is forcing some countries to revert to lockdowns. The Dutch government on Friday ordered a nighttime closure of bars, restaurants and most stores to stem a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 cases that is threatening to overwhelm the country’s healthcare system. Called the worst in Western Europe, the latest wave of infections in the Netherlands, running above 20,000 per day, came notwithstanding a vaccination rate of 85 percent of the adult population. 

While continued caution is necessary, however, I would advise against extreme measures like cutting off flights altogether (called a “circuit breaker”) and closing beaches. In general, we do need to protect our healthcare system against excessive pressures. So, if the number of infections detected on a flight, despite “clearance” before boarding, is deemed too high, we can reduce the frequency of flights. If we are worried about the ease of transmission of the new variants, we can reexamine our quarantine procedures to close loopholes and to guard against transmission among people under quarantine. The suffering endured by fellow citizens due to flight bans is too great to make much sense, when it is possible to reduce risks through doing better at quarantining and testing.

Closing our beaches and public parks was probably the most foolish decision made by the special administrative region government last year. Apart from the sacrifice imposed on citizens due to loss of access to these amenities, it caused more risks as many people crowded the country parks and popular hiking trails.

The SAR government is now mulling over requiring patrons to restaurants to provide proof of vaccination to gain access. A short while ago, the requirement for using the LeaveHomeSafe app before entering government sponsored facilities caused much anxiety among the blind and the elderly. I would strongly urge the government to reconsider these policies. One possible option is, instead of asking everybody to scan the QR code at entry, having someone to scan some visitors’ “ID card” instead. I put “ID card” in quotation marks to suggest that those who have difficulty using the LeaveHomeSafe App can be given some card with a QR code scanning which will give the health authorities access to their contacts. 

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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