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Published: 23:11, October 03, 2022
Oh no — not another COVID story
By Quentin Parker
Published:23:11, October 03, 2022 By Quentin Parker

So much has been said about COVID-19 so many times over so many months across so much media space. We are all sick and tired not just of hearing about COVID-19 but of having to live under it. What more is there to say?

Well, in my case, I’m back after nine weeks in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. I returned to my beloved Hong Kong in late August after my first academic trip for almost three years, since we became stuck in this now almost cocoon of a city.

All except two weeks were spent on professional, long-delayed activities: an important satellite project, a key research paper completed and submitted while working directly with collaborators, a scientific database porting project initiated, and a conference talk. This trip was a vital reboot to so many research endeavors put on hold or on “zoom running” until the traveling valve was finally released for me. After months of effort, I was eventually given permission to leave Hong Kong and able to gorge on meeting up with overseas work colleagues again after what seemed like a glacial period. I was also, at long last, tearfully able to see some of my Europe-based family. I know I am very lucky to have had these opportunities, especially given the life that so many less fortunate endure here, but it is in the nature of the vocation I have been lucky enough to be able to pursue and why I was lured to Hong Kong in the first place.  

The above academic story has many corollaries for many other professionals in Hong Kong, and it speaks to the loss of vital function so many have suffered, the impact of which should not be underestimated and is still being played out.

The contrast between living and traveling between and within these European countries and cities could not be starker than what awaited me when I returned. At least in Europe, I had had the freedom to move, mingle, eat, drink, and yes, even be merry without worrying about masks, RAT test results, PCR obligations, mandated quarantine, the fear of Penny’s Bay, and the myriad other small but tiresome inconveniences in life that made coming back to Hong Kong much harder than I had expected. 

It’s no surprise then that there are so many reports about a brain drain under such ongoing, if lately more relaxed, restrictions. It’s more like a tsunami of lost talent, a torrent of foregone opportunities, a cascade of failed and failing businesses under a cloud of general COVID fatigue, in a city now without the tourist dollars and one that is visibly less cosmopolitan than it was.

This is while the rest of the world and our competitors moved on months ago.

They are all now, without exception, it seems, under tacit acceptance of a living-with-the-virus paradigm. So instead of Hong Kong being an outlier in terms of excellence as a global finance, trade and transport hub and the envy of our rivals, we are now an outlier in the opposite sense at risk of further descending into reduced significance in all these areas as our brightest and best depart for more open shores.

We can talk about nurturing more homegrown talent and attracting it from the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area as some sort of replacement strategy. While this is laudable and to be encouraged, I do not believe it can replace what is available from a global talent reservoir. Nor will they bring to us external, international experiences that are so vital to the exploitation of true global perspectives and with the vital connections that build wealth and opportunity. So often, it is the close human connection that makes the difference.

Of course, much of the departed cadre is unlikely to return. Official figures are often couched in terms of, “There are many reasons why people chose to leave Hong Kong,” and while this is true it is clear the significant uptick is due to one reason and one alone — COVID-19 and the locally enforced quarantine policies surrounding it. For many, it is just the insidious impact of mind-numbing endurance that we have all suffered for so long — nearly three years — so real, natural fatigue has set in. Now even small impositions can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Even in academia, the exodus is clear. That I am aware of, one-third of the occupants of a university staff accommodation block have exited in the last 18 months, their apartments now empty shells.

On this point, I would urge any local university that still retains a “retire at 60” policy to consider placing a two-year moratorium on the enactment of such. This could be a sound decision given the number of academics that have already chosen to leave and the current difficulties encountered in international recruitment and retention as campus diversity diminishes. Such a moratorium would provide some level of staffing continuity and security across some of our universities until the situation really improves.

The good news is that John Lee Ka-chiu, the new Hong Kong chief executive, has hit the ground running and has adopted a much more pragmatic and dynamic approach to solving such issues as talent retention. But while we take important baby steps, our rivals are making great strides. Something fundamental needs to shift here and, I would respectfully suggest, on the Chinese mainland too.

In this vein, with the power of what focused national endeavor can achieve, China has amazed and stunned the world with its myriad accomplishments over the last 20 years, whether in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty or the amazing achievements in science and space. For COVID, it was the building of massive hospital complexes almost overnight to deal with patients or the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of health professionals to test, test, and test again millions and millions of people. What if instead of testing, they were vaccinating?

What if China was now to apply this same, powerful, national endeavor mentality to a pervasive vaccination program focused on the elderly and vulnerable who are most at risk of serious illness using the best vaccines available from wherever they might have originated? The science is clear. The vaccines work, and millions of lives have been saved while multiple vaccinated, younger and healthy people are protected. While the West focused on maximizing vaccinations among the old and infirm early on, containment processes were laxer and imposed too late, with the UK being a prime example of the latter, with tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths the result. In China, despite the lockdowns saving countless lives, the vaccine uptake among the elderly has been slow. This, more than anything, has prevented a relaxing of controls and led to the effective sealing of China from the rest of the world. However, I believe the world desperately needs an open China as soon as possible.

So while China has done better than any other nation in controlling the ravages of COVID on the human population via a world-beating system of robust health checks and rigid lockdowns imposed without fear or favor on entire multi-million inhabitant cities, this has been at great cost to the Chinese economy. China has put the health of its citizens above commerce and trade, but much damage has also been done as a result.

I believe now is the time for a reevaluation of this policy given the high transmissibility but lower mortality of the latest COVID strains. It cannot be contained without immense continuous effort and indefinitely closed external borders. The Chinese way saved countless lives and was undoubtedly the right policy early on, but the situation and virus have evolved. There is no issue of losing face by now adapting to the new realities of an evolved COVID virus that the entire world has to live with. Globally it is the new normal, and a necessary shift to a regime of control, vaccination and boosters so real life can be effectively resumed.

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong and the director of its Laboratory for Space Research.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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