Omicron reveals Hong Kong’s Covid dilemma

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HONG KONG — The scenes were straight out of the Chinese coronavirus playbook. Armies of workers, deployed to lock up the inhabitants. Plans to erect a huge makeshift hospital. And on Wednesday, an order from Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, plastered on local front pages: “Make controlling the epidemic as soon as possible an overwhelming priority.”

The site of the latest outbreak, however, was not mainland China, but neighboring Hong Kong. And unlike on the mainland, where the government’s lofty language has been followed by quick results, no such relief is in sight.

As Hong Kong sinks under its worst wave of coronavirus yet, overwhelmed hospitals have left patients waiting on the sidewalks. People stood in test lines that wind through parks and football pitches. Cases continue to grow exponentially as authorities opt for targeted rather than citywide lockdowns. Researchers have warned that by summer the latest wave could kill nearly 1,000 people, more than four times the number of people who have died from Covid in Hong Kong in the past two years.

The city’s agitated response exposed a crucial weakness in its ability to handle the coronavirus. Unlike other places facing an upsurge in the Omicron variant, Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese city, cannot choose to live with the virus; Beijing continues to demand local elimination. But the city, which retains some freedoms unheard of on the mainland, also cannot use Beijing’s full array of authoritarian tools or nearly unlimited manpower to eradicate transmission at any cost.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam even struggled to define the term the government uses to describe its approach, “dynamic zero”.

“‘Zero Dynamics’ – I agree this is a political demand from the continent,” she said. told reporters last month. “But I’m not the originator, so if you want an authoritative definition of ‘dynamic’, I’m sorry, I really can’t explain it.”

Basically, the city’s crisis reflects the limits of its unique political model. Health experts have pointed out that some measures, such as mandatory citywide testing, would be unworkable in Hong Kong and could also anger a public already deeply suspicious of the government. But as Beijing exerts ever-tighter control over Hong Kong, through a national security law and a sweeping crackdown on dissent, those considerations may start to carry less weight.

Some have called Hong Kong’s willingness to adopt tougher restrictions a proxy for its loyalty to Beijing.

“The loopholes and wobble in Hong Kong’s anti-virus strategy show that some officials have failed to meet the demands of ‘firm patriotism,'” said Tian Feilong, a law professor at Beihang University in Beijing who studies Hong Kong.

Last month, the Hong Kong government was obliged to specify that it was legal to make “general remarks and discussion” about the effectiveness of dynamic zero, after Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, suggested that questioning it could violate security law.

Meanwhile, the public health toll continues to grow. Some 12,000 people who tested positive are still waiting to be admitted to a hospital or an isolation unit, according to government figures. After five months without Covid deaths, Hong Kong recorded at least 21 last week, including a 3-year-old girl and a 100-year-old woman on Tuesday.

Until this wave, Hong Kong has largely had the coronavirus under control. The city’s combination of strict social distancing rules and aggressive contact tracing helped curb the previous four waves of infection relatively quickly. For much of 2021, the city has had no local cases. But the highly transmissible variant of Omicron attacked the cracks in the city’s defenses.

Omicron’s first local transmissions were traced to two flight attendants who returned from overseas in December. A larger Omicron cluster was connected to a woman who became infected while in hotel quarantine after returning from Pakistan.

The woman passed the virus on to her husband, who passed it on to a housekeeper in a sprawling housing estate. Hong Kong closed half a dozen buildings and tested 37,000 people last month after more than 100 people there tested positive.

The virus has now spread to more than 20 nursing homes and care facilities, underscoring another weakness in Hong Kong’s preparations. While more than 84% of people over the age of 11 have received at least one injection of the vaccine, among those aged 70 and over, the proportion is only 56%.

“In a way, we have been victims of our own success because the death rate and the infection rate were quite good until recently,” said Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who had been speaking by phone from since. self-quarantine after his driver tested positive. . “Older people thought they didn’t need to be vaccinated because there could be complications. And the government hesitated. We avoided vaccination mandates.

As the outbreak unfolded, Ms. Lam initially tried to draw a clear line between Hong Kong and the mainland, even as she pledged to adhere to dynamic zero. It would be impractical to invite mainland workers to carry out door-to-door testing, she said this month, partly because of language differences; the primary language in Hong Kong is Cantonese, not the Mandarin used on the mainland. Mrs. Lam too rejected calls on pro-Beijing lawmakers to introduce mandatory universal testing, defending the most targeted operations.

“If we abandon this efficient and targeted testing work and recklessly follow other places to do so-called community testing, I will not bear the consequences,” she said. “Anti-epidemic work is not a slogan.”

The Hong Kong government is just following Beijing’s instructions, but it’s still hesitant to go all the way, to go all the way,” said Willy Lam, assistant professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “They know most people in Hong Kong don’t trust the Chinese way.”

But in recent weeks, as the outbreak spirals out of control, calls for Hong Kong to move closer to the mainland strategy have grown. Both the Chinese state news agency and the Communist Party’s official spokesperson published comments this month Warning against any suggestion of living with the virus.

Shiu Sin-por, a former adviser to the Hong Kong government, accused Ms Lam of “unilaterally emphasizing the differences between Hong Kong and the mainland”.

He wrote in an opinion column“Hong Kong’s methods are indescribable, half-baked and full of loopholes, which has led to this outbreak.”

Others were more explicit about the policy implications. Professor Tian, ​​in Beijing, blamed Hong Kong’s failures to control the virus on officials overly influenced by the West.

In written responses to questions, Prof Tian said the latest outbreak showed that “the Hong Kong government still has insufficiently loyal or hypocritical officials”, even after the security law.

He added: “There should be other measures to eliminate them from the system.”

Political pressure, coupled with the deterioration of the public health situation, seems to have had an effect. Over the weekend, Hong Kong officials traveled to Shenzhen, on the other side of the border, to set up joint task forces with local officials. The task forces will work to increase testing capacity and build makeshift isolation facilities, like those used in China, the government noted.

On Wednesday, Beijing announced that it also affect central government officialsin addition to regional ones, to help monitor the outbreak in Hong Kong.

But even pro-Beijing figures acknowledge that Hong Kong cannot copy the mainland’s model. When authorities this month locked down Baise, a city of about 3.6 million people in southwest China, after an outbreak of dozens of cases, they deployed 38,000 members and workers of the Communist Party to patrol neighborhoods and coordinate supplies, according to local government. These networks have long been part of the continent’s social controls. Hong Kong has more than twice as many people and no such network.

“We lack sufficient organizational, mobilization and control capabilities, and we also lack a strong government,” said Lau Siu-Kai, Beijing’s adviser to Hong Kong.

Hong Kongers may also prove fiercely resistant to a citywide lockdown. When Ms Lam visited a closed housing estate last month, residents covered her with insults from their windows – a display of public dissent rarely seen since the imposition of the security law.

The government has hesitated to introduce more invasive contact-tracing apps like those that exist on the mainland, in part because of residents’ privacy concerns.

But some fear authorities are using the latest outbreak as an opportunity to push through more surveillance measures, Prof Lam said. Trust in the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing “is quite low”, he said.

Health experts say the political debate has overshadowed the grim medical reality. Between low vaccination rates among the elderly and the slow pace of imposing lockdowns, the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon, regardless of the path Hong Kong takes, said Siddharth Sridharvirologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is moving too late,” he said. “We don’t have good options.”

Joy Dong and Cao Li contributed to the research.

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