Published: 23:52, March 15, 2022 | Updated: 09:59, March 16, 2022
Bold anti-pandemic action needed to end residents’ constant mental anguish
By Naubahar Sharif

Many a column inch has been devoted recently to Hong Kong’s COVID-19 pandemic: its causes, its handling, vaccination rates, death rates, the pathway back to normality, comparisons with Singapore, Hong Kong’s gratitude for the Chinese mainland’s support in our efforts to fight the pandemic, and the mainland’s approach to managing COVID-19 (including the “zero COVID” and “dynamic zero infection” strategies), living with the virus, and so on and so forth. COVID-19-related topics emerge in a seemingly unending parade.

My intention here is not to revisit those issues. Many an observer and analyst more qualified than I has elaborated on them more persuasively than I could ever hope to.

Rather, my purpose is to dissect the state of constant mental anguish (CMA) that we, Hong Kong residents, find ourselves in.

The feeling is constant: We have been feeling it faintly since about the turn of the year (Jan 1), and far more severely since the turn of the Lunar New Year (Feb 1). It is continuous, it is inescapable, and it is (for now, at least) seemingly never-ending. Not a day passes without having to navigate some news — usually unfavorable — related to the unfolding of the pandemic locally, making it difficult to focus as we, at best, attend to our daily responsibilities in a scattershot manner.

If we fail to steel ourselves to meet this moment, we risk permanent scarring to the point that, heaven forbid, the Hong Kong that emerges from this experience will not be stronger, but weaker, than the one that most of us recognize

This mental, rather than physical, state that we occupy persists independently of whether we have actually caught the disease (yet) or not (the precise variant notwithstanding) or recovered from it fully or incompletely; whether we are vaccinated (partially, fully, or boosted notwithstanding); whether we are in quarantine (in government facilities or at home); and whether we agree or disagree (or agree partially) with past, current or planned local handling of the pandemic. It is fair to say that, regardless of the aforementioned factors, Hong Kong residents now unfortunately find themselves, wittingly or unwittingly, in a state of mental torment.

Our situation is painful not least because few of us can do much directly about it (other than wear our masks, observe good personal hygiene, and isolate if infection is suspected), and also because of two additional, interrelated, dimensions that contribute to this state of CMA: incomplete information and uncertainty.

Incomplete information: There is simply too much information that is unknown to the public, which only exacerbates an already heightened state of CMA. This is not to apportion blame. Rather, it is to highlight that when we don’t know when or how the universal community testing program will take place and be implemented (just one example), we residents are left dangling. This in turns fuels imaginations that run amok. Indeed, just as parents’ imaginations run crazy when a child does not return home at the promised time, so Hong Kong residents’ imaginations are running wild, trying to complete the picture of information that is currently unavailable. Detrimental outcomes ensue: The recent run on groceries represents just one such example.

Uncertainty: Related to incomplete information is the state of uncertainty in which we find ourselves, seemingly perpetually. What is Hong Kong’s way out of the current situation? Why haven’t Hong Kong’s policymakers learned from overseas examples? Why can’t Hong Kong follow the Chinese mainland’s (and Macao special administrative region’s) lead? Will assistance from the Chinese mainland experts pull us out of our current predicament? After how long will things return to normal? What will the new normal look like? The answers to all these questions are uncertain, and that uncertainty, again, breeds unfavorable outcomes: Witness, for example, the recent exodus of residents from Hong Kong to take shelter — temporarily or permanently — elsewhere.

To extricate ourselves from under this CMA cloud, Hong Kong sees itself at a crossroads. At this point in time, it does not even matter so much which path Hong Kong chooses. Hong Kong simply needs to choose and follow it with all its verve and energy. Just get over the “hump”. In the same way that taking medicine is usually unpalatable but necessary, so Hong Kong citizens understand that several days or a few weeks of unpleasantness is necessary and many times more preferable to this constant draining of our economy and our livelihoods, not to mention the closure of our children’s schools: In short, we must find our way out of this amorphous unending state of “constant mental anguish”.

If we fail to steel ourselves to meet this moment, we risk permanent scarring to the point that, heaven forbid, the Hong Kong that emerges from this experience will not be stronger, but weaker, than the one that most of us recognize. Already, some indicators suggest that this is what is happening. Let us all work together to stop it before it is too late.

The author is a professor of public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.