Hong Kong must effectively increase the vaccination rates for its elderly and children, study and source new vaccines, prepare adequate isolation and treatment facilities, as well as equip the HKSAR with effective stay-home quarantine or isolation capacity to complement extensive testing. This is the only way to establish the foundation for our long-term fight against COVID and to create a conducive environment for economic recovery and betterment of people’s livelihood.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been lingering for more than two years and affecting societies, economies and people’s livelihood around the world. In Hong Kong, the fifth wave that began in early January 2022 is the most severe round. The daily number of new confirmed cases once exceeded 70,000. Cumulatively, 1.19 million COVID cases have been confirmed, and more than 9,000 lost their lives to the disease. Over 90% of COVID deaths involves elders over 65. The pandemic has also dealt a heavy blow at Hong Kong’s economy. Unemployment rate rose to 4.5% and has continued with an upward trend. The current diffusion index (DI) on business receipts amongst SMEs decreased markedly from 37.8 in January 2022 in the contractionary zone to 29.9 in February 2022 - the lowest level since early 2020. At the same time, the Hang Seng Index had substantial fluctuation and once plummeted 10% in two days. The outbreak of the fifth wave was beyond the response capability of the Hong Kong government, and the general livelihood and economy of Hong Kong were once in turmoil.
Hong Kong to “reborn” with State assistance
At the most crucial juncture, the State offered Hong Kong with timely assistance. In February, President Xi Jinping issued an important directive to “assume the main responsibility to stabilize the epidemic situation early as the overriding mission at present”. Central government and local authorities fully supported and assisted the HKSAR Government on preventing and fighting COVID. Mainland expert groups were quickly mobilized to Hong Kong, and nucleic acid testing professionals were gathered across the country. Dedicated laboratories and mobile testing vehicles were made available; mobile field hospitals were built in seven days. Supplies were transported through water and land routes to maintain the normal supply of fresh produce in Hong Kong and to stabilize prices. All these reflect the State’s unconditional care for Hong Kong, giving the special administrative region a boost of confidence in fighting COVID.
As the saying “it takes a good blacksmith to forge good tools” goes, while the State is offering strong support, the HKSAR government must assume the major responsibilities in its fight against the coronavirus. Following the advice of mainland experts, the HKSAR government has been focusing its anti-epidemic resources to actualize the goal of lowering the number of deaths, severe cases and infection since mid-March. The communication of COVID information has been improved; Queen Elizabeth Hospital and other facilities have been converted into designated hospitals for admitting critical COVID patients; the Hospital Authority is supported in sourcing oral medications; the capacity of the community treatment facility at AsiaWorld Expo has been expanded; a number of holding centers have been set up; support for stay-home quarantine has been enhanced; and “anti-epidemic service bags” have been distributed to all Hong Kong citizens. The long list of measures has brought down the number of new confirmed COVID cases in Hong Kong from the peak of 30,000 to 70,000 per day to around 200. Initial success has been achieved.
Long-term anti-epidemic strategy for the future
As the number of COVID cases gradually reduces and with the anti-epidemic fatigue, how should Hong Kong plan for fighting the coronavirus in the future? While countries are adopting different strategies to combat COVID-19, the plans adopted can be broadly classified as “pursuing dynamic zero-infection” or “living with the coronavirus”. The two approaches are not a battle of ideologies or principles. Rather, they were meant to help implementing measures that are most suited for the actual local circumstances, including medical resources, humanitarian attitudes, as well as political and economic systems. They do share a common pursuit to achieve herd immunity, which could be made possible through vaccination, natural infection, or a combination of both. China places a stronger stress on vaccination, while the UK tends to rely on natural infection. Although there is not yet a concrete definition for “dynamic zero-infection”, we understand that measures such as “early detection, early isolation, early treatment”, “guarding against the importation of cases and the resurgence of domestic infections” are adopted to save lives. “Dynamic zero-infection” does not mean a requirement of an absolute zero. With the coronavirus mutating as we fight it, there are certain periods of time that we are in fact living with it to a certain extent. What we cannot accept is how certain countries are doing nothing to co-exist with the virus. To adopt a more inclusive type of “dynamic zero-infection” at the right moment, Hong Kong must appropriately increase the vaccination rate amongst elders and children, study and source vaccines that could better respond to mutant strains of COVID, prepare adequate capacity for isolation and treatment facilities, as well as to equip ourselves with effective stay-home quarantine or stay-home isolation capacity to complement extensive testing. This is the only way to cement the foundation for our long-term fight against COVID, to bring hope and a breathing space for citizens who are exhausted from fighting the virus, and to create a conducive environment for economic recovery and the betterment of people’s livelihood.
A suite of measures to reinvigorate the economy
Hong Kong’s economy will inevitably shrink in Q1 2022 owing to worsened epidemic circumstances. In other words, the rebound momentum of the last four consecutive quarters will be interrupted. Fighting COVID at all costs is not only about safeguarding the lives and health of the Hong Kong public, but also about creating a favorable environment for business operation and the public’s livelihood. Understanding the urgent needs of citizens, legislators have been speaking up for the public and the industry at consultation meetings. Proposals to optimize the “Anti-epidemic Fund” and to relaunch the Employment Protection Scheme were made. Legislators also underscored the importance of strengthening monitoring and control to ensure reasonable use of public funds. The Legislative Council Finance Committee swiftly examined and approved to inject HKD27 billion into the sixth round of the “Anti-epidemic Fund” in mid-February. This does not only enhance funding availability in various fields but is also covering industries that were not supported in the previous rounds. To address the urgent needs of the unemployed, a one-off unemployment relief is also introduced for the first time. In mid-April, a new and enhanced round of the Employment Support Scheme was approved to help SMEs tide over difficulties and maintain some strengths for Hong Kong’s economy.
Another element of stimulating the development of the Northern Metropolis is to establish a complete I&T ecosystem and value chain to attract Chinese and foreign high-quality I&T companies to move into the San Tin Technopole and form an industrial cluster together with Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Park, and then spearhead Hong Kong’s economic transformation. In this regard, the Government could emulate the measures taken by its two major competitors, Singapore and South Korea, such as providing more attractive tax incentives and even leasing land to eligible companies for free in order to improve the incentives for I&T companies to move into the San Tin Technopole. At the same time, Hong Kong should leverage its strengths in basic research to mutually complement with the Mainland’s expertise in commercialising scientific research results in order to secure key opportunities that will help Hong Kong’s all-round development in scientific research.
Besides, economy recovery must reconnect with the world at large. As an externally oriented economy, Hong Kong may not be able to achieve herd immunity in the short term. Yet, it should make hay while the sun shines. It cannot simply stay outside of the matter or completely shut off the border. Hong Kong should consider and discuss the optimal time, the preferrable conditions, as well as the approaches to open up its border to reconnect with the global communities and economies under the premise of upholding the “dynamic zero-infection” strategy.
This is a free translation. For the exact meaning of the article, please refer to the Chinese version.
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