Published: 23:34, March 21, 2022 | Updated: 12:16, March 22, 2022
Leveraging Greater Bay Area capacity to fight pandemic
By He Tsz-yuk

The raging fifth wave of COVID-19 outbreak, which has sent the numbers of daily infections and death cases to over 50,000 and 200 recently, has caused great concern among residents, prompting the central government to call for stronger, concerted efforts to rein in the virus. 

Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who oversees Hong Kong and Macao affairs, and Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, have emphasized that the top priority for Hong Kong now is to make all-out efforts to safeguard the health and lives of residents by bringing the virus under control as quickly as possible, and urged the special administrative region government to fulfill the main responsibility of reining in the outbreak in the SAR. 

The SAR government must tackle the underlying problems of the local public healthcare sector. In April 2021, the Shenzhen government announced several measures on accelerating cross-border connection of medical services to facilitate Hong Kong residents’ access to medical treatments

The assistance from the Chinese mainland, including the arrival of expert and medical teams, batches of anti-pandemic resources and daily necessities, has injected strong confidence into Hong Kong residents. However, in the long run, it is necessary for Hong Kong to facilitate institutional breakthroughs or profound reforms in the local medical and healthcare system based on the development plan of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. 

ALSO READ: HK virus curbs to remain as pandemic situation still grave

In the “Outline of the Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” released in 2019, the section on “Shaping a Healthy Bay Area” puts forward many forward-looking guidelines on medical and healthcare development, many of which are highly instructive for dealing with the current pandemic. The potential reforms would help us better cope with any potential pandemic in the future.

Cross-border referrals from public hospitals should be carried out

Hong Kong’s public healthcare system has long been under great strain because of strong demand. The public health system has been understaffed and its resources have been overstretched, making it difficult to meet residents’ demand for basic healthcare services. 

The fifth wave of COVID-19 infections has put further pressure on the public healthcare system. As a result, older patients had to wait for hours outside hospitals before they could receive treatment.

The SAR government must tackle the underlying problems of the local public healthcare sector. In April 2021, the Shenzhen government announced several measures on accelerating cross-border connection of medical services to facilitate Hong Kong residents’ access to medical treatments. 

ALSO READ: COVID-19: HK suspends mass testing plan, lifts flight ban

Those measures seek to optimize port clearance mode for medical transfer vehicles and increase the number of designated medical institutions providing referral services. 

In February this year, the Guangdong government issued the “Implementation Opinions on Promoting the High-quality Development of Public Hospitals”, which aims to encourage the establishment of a Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao medical specialty alliance and a telemedicine cooperation network on medical specialties, as well as exploring the pilot of cross-border referral cooperation among designated public hospitals. 

To reduce the difficulty of implementation and speed up the efficiency of such a cooperation system, it is advised that the SAR government refer to the medical cooperation model between Chennai in India and the United Kingdom. 

The Apollo Hospital in India has set up a telemedicine link with the UK, allowing family doctors in the UK to consult Indian specialists and eventually refer patients to Indian specialists. 

ALSO READ: HK sees 14,068 virus cases, zero new infections in care homes

In view of the situation in Hong Kong, the SAR government can set up a “Greater Bay Area Medical Express” in the foreseeable future and seek assistance from the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Doctors from the public sector in Guangdong province can be invited to join in the “Greater Bay Area Medical Express” system to provide medical advice and address urgent medical inquiries of Hong Kong residents. 

To reduce pressure on Hong Kong’s public hospitals, the SAR government can study whether some patients are suitable for diversion to public hospitals in Guangdong province. The SAR government should conduct feasibility studies on the above proposals and formulate relevant regulations and guidelines as soon as possible.

The linkage mechanism for emergency medical assistance should be improved

During the fifth wave of outbreak, in addition to the shortage of medical resources in the public healthcare system, contradictory information on anti-pandemic policies has attracted public attention. For example, the SAR government has been wobbling on both citywide testing and lockdown when the general public has been under tremendous stress, causing resentment among the public as well as panic. 

As Legislative Council member Luk Hon-man suggested, the SAR government lacks a comprehensive emergency management plan. The SAR government has to realize that pandemic prevention in Hong Kong is not just a local issue. 

More than 100 COVID-19 infection cases in Guangdong province came from Hong Kong. If Hong Kong becomes a weakness in the country’s pandemic prevention strategy, the nation’s strategy of maintaining social stability will be endangered. We must not add a burden to the country. 

As early as 2020, the then director of Health Commission of Guangdong province Duan Yufei said that we need to promote and improve joint prevention and control mechanisms for infectious diseases among Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao. 

ALSO READ: Lam: HK must stay alert despite decline in cases

Obviously some Hong Kong people do not appreciate such strategic thinking, as evidenced by some local residents’ vocal objection to Hong Kong taking a leaf out of the mainland’s anti-pandemic book, citing “one country, two systems”.

To tackle this problem, it is advisable that the central government sets up an authoritative, overriding unified pandemic command center whose primary task is to coordinate and dispatch social resources in Hong Kong and across the Greater Bay Area, and strengthen cooperation in testing, treatment, health care, burial of the deceased, response to public inquiries, logistics and other fronts. 

In addition, we need to make good use of the experience of the mainland in screening vulnerable groups, monitoring dangerous areas, and in the prevention and control of the spread of the virus in medical institutions. 

It is necessary to implement unified anti-pandemic mechanisms, eliminate unwanted noise, and thus create a unified anti-pandemic environment. For the medium to long term, the command center should establish a set of optimized emergency linkage guidelines, specifying in what situation or conditions the emergency linkages should start to operate, and the levels of specific linkages. 

The setting up of such a command center would greatly help to effectively cope with serious public health threats in the future, and prevent recurrent outbreaks.

READ MORE: HK 'must keep strict social distancing measures at this stage'

To cope with the fifth wave of outbreak, the SAR government must strengthen cooperation with other cities in the Greater Bay Area as quickly as possible, carry out cross-border referral mechanisms among public hospitals and improve the linkage mechanisms of emergency medical assistance with the coordination and support of the central government, to quickly relieve the pressure on Hong Kong’s medical system and anti-pandemic system in the short term. I must stress that institutional reforms are urgent. 

The SAR government should start from the two directions mentioned above; and, in the long run, improve and reform the local medical system in accordance with the contents of the “Outline Plan”, such as strengthening a two-way medical personnel exchange between the mainland and Hong Kong and the development of traditional Chinese medicine. I believe that Hong Kong will surely overcome the pandemic by leveraging the support of the motherland.

The author is a youth commentator with the local think tank The Arete and a youth representative on the Civil Policy Address Drafting Committee. His research focuses on the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and local healthcare policy.