Published: 01:14, December 11, 2020 | Updated: 08:33, June 5, 2023
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City's economic recovery hinges on compulsory universal COVID-19 testing
By Chow Pak-chin

News of a COVID-19 vaccination has continued to dominate headlines as Britain began its first round of vaccinations on Tuesday.

Britain became the first nation to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec 2. Healthcare workers, care home residents and staff, and residents aged 80 and above will be prioritized for the 800,000 plus doses over the next few weeks.

But while Britain has claimed a first in using a vaccine, China’s own vaccine will have a clear advantage once it becomes available to the public: logistics.

Sinovac and Sinopharm — our leading vaccine developers — are in the final stages of releasing a vaccine that can be distributed without relying upon costly cold storage chains.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius, which has required German pharmaceutical BioNTech to develop specially made shipping containers. Its competitor Moderna’s requires storage at -20 degrees Celsius. Even for nations with established cold chain storage networks, this presents a significant and costly logistical challenge.

So, while Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca appear to be leading the charge in developing a vaccine, China is leading the charge in ensuring global health equality.

Nevertheless the vaccine isn’t a perfect solution that will bring an end to the virus.

We have to inoculate at least 70 percent of the city’s total population to attain effective immunity, then we need to vaccinate 5.25 million Hongkongers. Technically and administratively is this attainable? In terms of getting the necessary cooperation of the populace, vaccination is not going to be any easier than universal testing.

With this in mind, it appears that Hong Kong is a step closer to universal testing, for which I will continue to campaign for as it is exactly what our city needs to get back on its feet.

As of now, COVID-19 has infected nearly 68 million people and over 1.5 million have died worldwide as a result, which puts the death rate at 2.5 percent. This may seem like a small percentage, which it certainly is compared to the mortality rate of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2003. But it’s the rate of transmission that makes COVID-19 so dangerous.

The recent dance club cluster in Hong Kong has substantiated how easily this virus spreads; government data have indicated that one person was able to infect up to 16 people. Coupled with a low mortality rate, it is no wonder that this virus spreads so quickly.

While we can say with some certainty that a vaccine is on its way to Hong Kong, we cannot allow complacency to overtake us. Social distancing, high standards of personal hygiene, and overall caution are still required if we are to beat this pandemic once and for all.

The “Swiss cheese model”, an infographic created by virologist Ian Mackay, plainly illustrates why personal responsibilities (e.g., social distancing and masks) and shared responsibilities (e.g., vaccines, air filtration, and tracking and tracing) must all be performed in tandem to prevent transmission.

Each “layer” (i.e., responsibility) has its own benefits but it isn’t necessary a failsafe. For example, a mask that isn’t worn properly reduces its effectiveness. However, the combination of every intervention plugs these so-called “holes” in each responsibility. This means that every preventative measure must be carried out in full, so even a vaccine isn’t the “be all, end all” that will ensure life returns to normal.

As for Hong Kong itself, we’ve succumbed to multiple waves of infection because of imported cases and a continual failure to impose consistent restrictions on those who arrive from overseas.

It is not unheard for new arrivals in Hong Kong under quarantine to take public transport to their chosen hotel. And even more shocking, there have also been cases of those under quarantine breaking the protocol by venturing outside or inviting family and friends to their rooms.

And what’s more, these waves of infections keep coming because of our failure to remain consistent. When cases go up, we tighten restrictions; when cases go down, we relax the rules. And we know all too well what happens when we relax the rules. So we end up being trapped in endless cycles. 

The gaps in our safety measures are continually costing us and with winter just around the corner, things are poised to get worse for us.

We have been battling this virus since January, and it has battered us on nearly all fronts. Our economy is in dire straits; our retail industry and food and beverage industry are continuing to nosedive; and unemployment is at a high of 6.4 percent. It’s an even bleaker picture for those aged 20 to 25, as unemployment in this demographic stands at over 20 percent.

Our economy is nothing without the mainland, so we need their help to revive our stagnant economy by re-opening the checkpoints. It is a “do it or die” option.

This much is clear: We need universal testing and we need to reopen our boundary checkpoints with the Chinese mainland, but the former needs to happen before the latter can even be contemplated in any reality.

Universal testing is the only way forward; it has worked well for the Chinese mainland where some cities have a far bigger population than that of Hong Kong.

We also need to do our bit in restoring the world’s confidence in the mainland, as the pandemic has plagued the world with ill-conceived ideas about China and the Asian community.

At present, the World Health Organization is conducting a lengthy investigation into the origins of the pandemic. Some reports have suggested that the virus appeared in Italy as early as the autumn of 2019, but this has yet to be confirmed by the WHO as their investigation is still in its infancy.

Whatever the case, the world should think twice before placing the blame on China’s shoulders. 

In fact, our biggest priority now is to stay alert, stay vigilant, and be thoughtful. The actions of a single person may seem insignificant, but we all have a responsibility to fulfill in this pandemic. We are all painfully aware of how the actions of a single person can have far-reaching consequences, so it is in our best interests that we act responsibly for as long as it is required.

The author is president of Wisdom Hong Kong, a think tank.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.