Published: 00:46, March 23, 2022 | Updated: 10:08, March 23, 2022
City’s anti-COVID-19 policies should take into account ‘pandemic fatigue’
By Ho Lok-sang

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government recently acknowledged that Hong Kong is facing “pandemic fatigue”. It is important to understand the nature and aspects of pandemic fatigue, so we can hold together and finally claim success in our battle against the pandemic.

Pandemic fatigue is not just getting tired of wearing masks, having to wash our hands regularly, using the LeaveHomeSafe app, and having to work from home or attend school from home. People’s endurance and in particular their ability to tolerate the measures depends not just on their willingness to “grit their teeth” and wait for the clouds to pass and the moon to show again. Pandemic fatigue has to do with mental stress, physical stress, and financial stress, which are often interrelated. The anti-pandemic measures are aimed at saving lives, but the same measures can also cost lives. There is therefore a need for balance. When people can hardly take the measures any longer, we call it “pandemic fatigue”.

The fact that we have some of the strictest anti-pandemic measures in the world and yet the results are so poor suggests that some measures are not necessary or mistaken

The toll on lives arising from pandemic fatigue may not be so obvious but it is real. We need to understand that “saving a life” generally only means enabling a longer life span. If measures to fight the pandemic are extreme and if they last over a considerable period, people’s mental health, physical health, and financial health will suffer, and people may die prematurely. They may die prematurely because of an increase in the incidence of suicide, violence, and sickness. Following the worst recession in Hong Kong’s recent history in 1998, when a negative 6 percent growth rate was registered, Hong Kong’s housing market collapsed. Negative-equity cases climbed through 2003, when the housing market hit bottom. During that time, suicide rates kept climbing, eventually peaking at an all-time high of 18.8 per 100,000 in 2003. Last year, a story in Time magazine in February highlighted how the pandemic or the anti-pandemic measures had led to the rise in domestic violence. As hospitals shove away “non-urgent” patients to make room for COVID-19 patients, other patients die prematurely. Isolation and lack of social interaction and exercise can undermine both mental and physical health and increase people’s vulnerability to illnesses.

The World Health Organization recommends four strategies to fight pandemic fatigue, which can be summarized as sensitivity to people’s suffering, allowing people to live their lives while reducing risks, engaging people in the fight against the pandemic, and acknowledging and addressing the hardship that people experience and minimizing the impact caused by the pandemic and the anti-pandemic measures.

Tony Kwok’s column on Friday criticized the SAR government for the inaccessibility of the 24-hour anti-pandemic hotline, 1833019. He wrote: “People call a hotline only because they need urgent help, and if they were unable to get through on the hotline despite numerous attempts, their frustration is totally understandable.” Many commentators have pointed out this problem before. But the SAR government’s response was that it had arranged around 540 people who now answer over 10,000 calls a day. But the fact is that people continue to have difficulty reaching anyone. The 540 figure may sound like a lot, but with some 300,000 people in home quarantine, it may be too little. Moreover, answering the call is one thing; actually offering needed help is another. The responsible officials’ lack of sensitivity and the long wait of hapless and helpless people seeking help undermine trust in the government and the solidarity of the whole community in fighting the pandemic together.

The capability of the community members to “grit their teeth” is not just based on mental stamina. It is also based on the financial resources that they have. I would invite our policymakers and their advisers to imagine that as a result of the measures that they adopted to fight the pandemic, their salaries were cut by 90 percent, but still had to pay many regular expenses. What is worse is that they don’t see an end to all this, while their savings dwindle and their debt accumulates. A fact of life for many is that they now hardly have one-tenth of the former incomes. The disconnect with people on the ground is why our policymakers casually slap one measure after another on various businesses without seriously studying their costs and effectiveness. Up to now, I still cannot see the logic of shutting down the operations of eateries at 6 pm. This is especially frustrating and infuriating for those businesses who had invested handsome amounts to make their restaurants safe, and are still forbidden to operate. This goes against the principle of “allowing people to live their lives while reducing risks” as recommended by the WHO.

The fact that we have some of the strictest anti-pandemic measures in the world and yet the results are so poor suggests that some measures are not necessary or mistaken. I cannot understand the logic of closing down beaches, instead of policing and prosecuting offenders who clearly violate the rules. The beaches are a friend, not a foe, in the fight against pandemic fatigue. I also cannot comprehend the logic of allowing only two people at one table in eateries. The government should really allow a family living under one roof to eat together.

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.