Published: 23:45, December 6, 2021 | Updated: 09:39, December 7, 2021
How to protect vulnerable groups from COVID-19
By Ho Lok-sang

In last week’s column, I suggested that, instead of asking the elderly, the very young and the physically handicapped, who often have difficulty using the LeaveHomeSafe app, to use this app, it would be far easier for them to simply present an “ID” card that can be scanned by employees of the eateries. I call this “reverse scanning.” For simplicity, I will use the handicapped to refer to all those who have difficulty in using modern digital communication tools.

Consider three possible alternative scenarios. One is that all digitally handicapped people will be required to purchase or be given a free handset with the app installed. Apart from the huge number of handsets that may be needed and the fact that they all have to be backed up by a data plan that allows the phones to receive messages from the government in case of need, they will most probably still need assistance at the entrance to a venue that they visit. In contrast, equipping the facilities with a scanner that will collect the information of the visit and sending to the Centre for Health Protection may require less hardware and certainly free people from much anxiety. Presenting an ID card for employees to scan is much less stressful than turning on the app and using the handset properly. This is especially the case for visually impaired people. 

Another possible scenario is that all handicapped people will be banned from going to eateries, cinemas, concert halls, etc. This is likely to be very costly in terms of the unhappiness caused among the handicapped people and their family members. If we are concerned about mental health, we certainly will not consider this as viable.

Yet another possible scenario is to allow an exemption to this handicapped group. Unfortunately, this will still be costly, in terms of possible failure to record the visit properly on the system. The CHP will then not be able to inform them of the risk and advise them to be tested. Worse still, now that Hong Kong may soon be able to open its borders with the mainland for those who are cleared of COVID-19-related risks, the possible loophole could dash the opportunity and hope. 

Of course, we need to open the borders with the Chinese mainland, so that family members separated between Hong Kong and the mainland can meet each other, so that our businesses that rely so much on mainland visitors can have more business, and so that Hong Kong businesspeople who have operations on the mainland can come back and forth without having to be quarantined. A 69-year-old woman, it is reported, who lives alone in Hong Kong, longs to go back to her hometown to see her grandchildren, but she is illiterate and does not own a smartphone.

To protect these “digitally handicapped” people, we should do what is necessary and avoid doing what is not really necessary. Apart from the “reverse scanning” that I proposed, namely, having a venue employee scan the code of the handicapped visitor instead of the handicapped visitor scanning the code on display at a venue, a central database will be updated of the vaccination record and the health status of the handicapped person. This means that in principle at least, it is possible for the venue visited to derive a “green”, “amber”, or “red” status of the ID card-bearing person simply by scanning the ID card of the handicapped person. The ease of use of the ID card will encourage handicapped people who want to move in and out of the mainland without quarantine to get a vaccination. 

While the majority of elderly people are fit for vaccination and should be encouraged to take the jab, some may not be. It is not wise to force them to vaccinate when the risks are high. The requirement that only vaccinated people can gain access to eateries and community facilities is inhumane, especially when there are other safeguards that will reduce risks. First, the family members of handicapped people should be advised to keep them away from strangers or from people who could pose a risk. If it is the family going out to dinner together, there is really no point in restricting the number of people eating at a table. Many handicapped people need to be accompanied by family members when going out. The risk of them being exposed to the virus are therefore considerably reduced.  

I very much hope that the health authorities put themselves in the shoes of those who are affected by the policies. This is the foundation for “design thinking.” According to the Interaction Design Foundation, design thinking is “a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test”. Empathy is to put oneself in the shoes of the users. This means a lot: not only the difficulties that the user might face, but also the emotions and stress that they could be subject to. Only with sufficient empathy can we come up with sensible solutions to the problems that we face together as a society.

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.