Published: 00:32, April 15, 2020 | Updated: 04:46, June 6, 2023
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We need a strategy to get out of the COVID-19 quagmire
By Ho Lok-sang

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Branch of the Centre for Health Protection, warned against outgoing trips when informed of a proposed package tour scheduled for May 9 by a local tourist agency. This is a five-day tour to eastern China. The cost is as low as HK$99 (US$13) per head. The tourist agency said this is a money-losing price, and is part of a promotion strategy. Obviously, it is concerned about Hong Kong people’s fear of going to the mainland, where the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out.

I am not surprised by Chuang’s warning. In her capacity, this is playing it safe. However, safety can be assured if the outgoing tours are only to “safe places” where the local infections have stopped and where imported cases are effectively isolated and prevented from infecting the community. Outgoing trips to unsafe places are of course risky and should be avoided. But as an executive director of the tourist agency says, Hong Kong people have a need to air out their aspirations to go outside. The large numbers of Hong Kong people spending time in Hong Kong’s countryside testify to this need. In any case, mental health is as important as physical health. There is already evidence that Hong Kongers are now suffering from serious mental stress. A University of Hong Kong survey in September found that a third of adults in Hong Kong reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), up from 2 percent in 2015, while 11 percent reported depression, up from 2 percent during the “Occupy Central” protests in 2014. This reflected the effect of months of social unrest and violence. COVID-19 will only make things much worse. Financial stress, loneliness due to social distancing, fear of possible infection of oneself and one’s loved ones, and fear of being laid off, loss of a sense of meaning due to prolonged unemployment — all will take a heavy toll on people’s mental health.

There is now an urgent need for a workable and credible strategy to lift the special administrative region out of the present quagmire because Hong Kong people cannot wait much longer. 

The goal is to end all local infections and keep local infections at zero for at least three weeks. Once we have achieved this, we can open up our borders to other jurisdictions that have done the same. Our tourist industry can then be revived

Even more important than pumping money to alleviate the pain of businesses and the unemployed and underemployed is to implement COVID-19 screening and strict quarantine for international arrivals from all cities other than “safe cities”.  We need to spend as much as needed to enforce quarantines. The goal is to end all local infections and keep local infections at zero for at least three weeks. Once we have achieved this, we can open up our borders to other jurisdictions that have done the same. Our tourist industry can then be revived.

To bring all infections inclusive of imported cases down to zero is a long shot. Our economy cannot wait. Our businesses that are on the brink of collapse, and our unemployed cannot wait. In any case, our fiscal reserves will not be large enough to keep these afloat for very long.

On the other hand, bringing local infections down to zero is achievable. We should do everything we can to achieve it and keep it that way for at least three weeks. Once we have achieved this, we should open up our borders with jurisdictions that have done the same. We should mutually lift quarantine requirements among such jurisdictions. This way, we will inject life into our tourism industry, and with that revive our restaurants, hotels, transportation, and retail industries, and bring back tens and even hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.  

Is the scheduled first outgoing tour on May 9 too early and too risky? My view is that this question is beside the point, because if we cannot achieve zero local infections for at least 14 days (or even better, three weeks), there is no way the mainland will allow Hong Kong tourists in without being quarantine. Already the mainland has announced that starting from March 28, with the exception of those on trips related to business and scientific/technological exchange activities, humanitarian missions, diplomatic or formal missions, all visitors will not be admitted. Starting on the same day, anyone including Hong Kongers and citizens of Macao entering Guangdong will need to be tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for 14 days at their own expense.

These measures are clearly very wise, and underscore the need to contain imported cases. They are necessary so cities on the mainland can be safe to live and work in. If another wave of infections happens, all the sacrifices made so far will be wasted.

Right now, the mainland is the safest place on Earth. Why should we worry about visitors from the mainland or visiting the mainland? We should keep our own house in order by keeping imported cases at bay. Without effective quarantining of international arrivals, we will never be able to stop local infections. If we are short of quarantine facilities and manpower, we should open up the public purse to ensure that we have what it takes to do the job.

So, instead of calling the scheduled eastern China tour premature, the Centre for Health Protection and the SAR government should do whatever is necessary to arrest local infections so that outgoing and incoming tourist flows can be revived as soon as possible.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.