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Published: 00:45, September 27, 2022 | Updated: 09:57, September 27, 2022
HK learns key policy lessons from the COVID-19 fight
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:00:45, September 27, 2022 Updated:09:57, September 27, 2022 By Ho Lok-sang

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, but it is clear that it is winding down. It has unleashed the greatest damage to the global economy in memory. The ongoing flaring inflation in many countries has multiple causes, but the pandemic is certainly one primary driving factor. The US Federal Reserve had launched a massive quantitative easing to rescue the American economy. This happened at a time when the Fed was supposed to trim its balance sheet, which had been bloated during the earlier wave of quantitative easing following the global financial tsunami of 2008. The disruptions to global supply chains, a second factor behind the inflation, had been ameliorated by China’s ability to contain the pandemic during the early phase of the pandemic. Against all odds and while most countries recorded sharp shrinkage in exports, Chinese factories kept humming to deliver testing kits, masks, personal protective equipment, and vaccines to fight the pandemic. But trade wars, sanctions and the war in Ukraine made things a lot worse.

It is time to look at what we have learned from this unforgettable episode in human history.

First, and perhaps the most important lesson, is that we need to realize the power of social media and the degree of public ignorance. Unfortunately, although people are supposed to be much better-educated today, they still succumb to fake news and rumors that caused people to resist vaccination. In the end, it is a high vaccination rate that ultimately brings down the pandemic, in particular in Singapore, where over 93 percent “had completed the recommended vaccination regiment against COVID-19, including 80 percent who have received booster shots”. Singapore has one of the world’s lowest COVID-19 fatality rates because it has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates. Unfortunately, thanks to social media spreading misinformation, there were anti-vaccination protests around the world. With slower progression in vaccinations, the world has to suffer much longer before returning to normalcy.

In retrospect, Hong Kong’s and Taiwan’s earlier successes in containing the spread of the virus ended up actually making things much worse. Because people thought that the chances of being infected were low, there was little incentive to get the shots. As a result, the vaccination rates in both Taiwan and Hong Kong fell behind those in many places. Singapore, on the other hand, had severe outbreaks not too long after the pandemic started. Singaporeans were scared, and many wanted to get protection through vaccination. Whereas many countries took vaccinating the elderly to be a priority, Hong Kong was a laggard in this regard. Its elderly homes suffered one of the world’s worst onslaughts by the virus. It is too bad that the public needs to be scared by tragic losses of life before people are willing to get the shots. It is too bad that even though the vaccines were available, we failed to raise the vaccination rate overall and especially among the elderly when infections were low. In any case, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government was not proactive enough to vaccinate the elderly until it was too late.

To be fair, our initial success was a great success. The precautions that we had taken in the early months of the pandemic were well-justified. But those precautions were meant to buy time so that we could all get vaccinated. Because people were not scared into taking the shots, we needed to provide more incentives. Instead of shutting down the eateries, we should have let them operate as long as all workers got vaccinated, and all patrons got vaccinated. The owners of some eateries invested to improve airflow. Yet they were forced to shut down nevertheless.

One mistake that we should avoid in the future is that we really should focus on the merits of each specific measure to assess if it is justified. The debate over whether we should “lie flat” or adhere to the “dynamic zero COVID” policy led us to wrong decisions. Our choice is not about doing nothing to contain the spread of the virus nor taking all measures to contain the infections regardless of the cost and effectiveness of those measures. In view of the contagious nature of COVID-19 and the fact that some measures are really low-cost but helpful, “lying flat” is out of the question. The idea behind the “dynamic zero COVID” policy is about saving lives and protecting people from the worst. There is no justification not to save a life when someone is urgently in need of medical care under “dynamic zero COVID”. There is no justification to starve a community and cut off needed supplies for an extended period under “dynamic zero COVID”. There were times when even our public beaches and public parks were closed supposedly because we were following a “dynamic zero COVID” policy. We imposed the longest quarantine requirements in the world and adopted a “circuit breaker” policy that effectively shut off international travel altogether and shut down our cruise industry.

Policymaking in the end is about specific policy measures, each of which must be weighed for its full costs and benefits. Policymaking is not about being politically correct. Rather, it is about finding the net benefits or costs that some policy measures produce. I am glad to see the HKSAR government now taking an enlightened, more-balanced approach that has the best interests of Hong Kong residents in mind.

The author is director of 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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