As countries around the world are being buffeted by the new omicron variant, Hong Kong is bracing for its fifth wave of the COVID-19 outbreak. Viral clusters that scatter across Hong Kong comprise both the delta and omicron variants. Dr Michael Chan Chi-wai, a public health researcher from the University of Hong Kong, published a paper which showed the latest variant concentrating 70 times higher in the upper respiratory tract than delta, but replicating with only one-tenth the efficiency of the original strain.
This could suggest omicron is more transmissible yet less deadly. “Higher transmissibility” prompted local government officials to ramp up efforts to combat the pandemic. Public campaigns for booster shots were afoot; regional compulsory testing to trace infectious contacts were implemented; gyms and beauty parlors were temporarily shut down; travel bans were tightened; infected individuals were isolated in designated facilities until they tested negative. A “lower death rate” sparked discussions around reopening the borders of Hong Kong to revive the lethargic economy. Rigorous lockdown in Hong Kong meant some residents had to sacrifice the joy of outbound excursions and others, as well as family reunions. Businesses too have suffered. Owners of gyms and beauty parlors were forced to close for two months (and possibly more) even as rent needed to be paid. What, then, justifies the latest series of lockdown policies?
After two years, it is obvious we can no longer wait and wish away the virus. At perilous times as such, only bold and resolute leadership can end chaos
Two years into the pandemic, it appears that the lethality of the virus is what should drive policy decisions. At the outset, SARS-CoV-2 raised public health alarms across the globe not only because it is highly contagious, but because patients who were infected by the coronavirus were 10 times likelier to succumb to it than to influenza, a respiratory virus known to cause millions of deaths each year in the US alone. Statistical extrapolations shocked the world, not least Asian countries where large swaths of people dwell in communities much more closely than their Western counterparts would. Preliminary data from the omicron variant suggested a death rate half that of delta, but still five times that of influenza. Were the entire population of China infected, no fewer than 700,000 people could die from COVID-19. No country is expected to come out of the pandemic unscathed. But the number of lives saved is perhaps more invaluable than the number of businesses saved.
Many suggested lockdowns should not remain forever — and they are certainly right to say that. Amid all the doom and gloom, there is a glimmer of hope. Each evolution of SARS-CoV-2 appears less lethal than the last, for the Darwinian tendency to leech on but not kill hosts undergirds the survival of viruses and parasites themselves. Scientists expect it to be a matter of time before the virus evolves to become less fatal. A death rate similar to or slightly higher than influenza could be an acceptable societal cost in exchange for the return to normalcy, some say. In fact, Zhong Nanshan, the former president of the Chinese Medical Association and a pulmonologist, suggested lower death rates to be a prerequisite for the reopening of the country.
As of today, vaccinations remain one of the most effective tools in the arsenal in the battle against the raging virus. Because the process of viral evolution is beyond our control, there is all the more reason to get jabbed. Some postulate better immunity among humans catalyzes viral evolution toward a less savage variant. Science suggests currently available vaccines may protect us less against transmission of the variant than against fatality caused by the infection. The efficacy of the vaccines is even more evident in the elderly who often fall ill when they contract the virus. One can imagine large numbers of the hoary bunch piling on hospital beds were they to be completely vulnerable to the virus. The already tattered healthcare system in Hong Kong may collapse. Elective surgeries may have to be postponed. Even emergency services can be delayed in the face of severe manpower shortages. A healthcare system in shambles augurs badly for any place to emerge from the specter of the pandemic. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control states that the death rate from COVID-19 and the risks of health system implosion are priority considerations that drive health policy decisions. A few European countries such as Austria and France enacted a raft of policies ranging from vaccine mandates to vaccine passports to boost inoculation rates. That was why Portugal and the Netherlands locked down their countries in December when omicron swiftly battered the continent. The US and Britain, which dithered between encouraging inoculations and tighter social distancing policies, also suffered the most deaths among the club of rich countries.
Hong Kong has so far fared better than most countries in withstanding this pandemic. Low infection rates and few deaths mean more resources are left to nip outbreaks in the bud, all thanks to keeping a vivid goal in mind. Whether Hong Kong comes out strong from the pandemic depends on the ways in which businesses can reopen while death tolls are kept low. A high vaccination rate is a sine qua non for Hong Kong to reconnect to the Chinese mainland and other parts of the world. Vaccine passports should be mandated throughout the region to cover as many crowded areas as possible. Rapid antigen testing kits need to be distributed quickly to those who are eager for proof of health. If anti-vaxxers continue to hold the region hostage, the special administrative region government should also mull punitive measures like those Singapore has implemented: One regulation states that Singaporeans who refuse to get the jab should get the bill. Similarly, the Hospital Authority should refuse to subsidize healthcare for patients who are not inoculated by the vaccines provided for free out of taxpayers’ pockets without a solid reason. After two years, it is obvious we can no longer wait and wish away the virus. At perilous times as such, only bold and resolute leadership can end chaos.
The author is a licensed medical doctor in Hong Kong and holds a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University in the US state of Maryland.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS