Hong Kong’s COVID-19 response, explained

Hong Kong’s COVID-19 response, explained
FILE PHOTO: A general view of skyline buildings, in Hong Kong, China July 13, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo
Hong Kong’s approach follows mainland China’s, whereby the government has adopted the zero-COVID-19 strategy, which means how it sounds – they won’t reopen until case numbers hit zero.

What’s Hong Kong’s tourism industry like?

  • Before COVID-19, Hong Kong was considered the most visited city in the world, and the tourism industry accounted for 4.5% of the city’s total gross domestic product (GDP).
  • The city also had over 257,000 employees working in the sector, accounting for 6.6% of total employment.
  • Now, these numbers come from 2018, which is the last full year Hong Kong had before pandemic restrictions that hampered the city’s tourism industry as well as economy in general.
  • And so, like many other economies, the pandemic then sent the city into a bit of a downtown turn as Hong Kongers went into several waves of lockdowns in response to coronavirus outbreaks.

What’s the situation in Hong Kong now, though?

  • Hong Kong’s approach follows mainland China’s, whereby they’ve adopted the zero-COVID-19 strategy, which means how it sounds – they won’t reopen until case numbers hit zero.
  • As of November 25, Hong Kong is, on average, reporting two cases per day, with its highest daily average recorded at the end of July this year.
  • But just for a bit of context, since the pandemic began, there have been 12,412 confirmed cases.
  • And, as of November 24, the city hit the 70% vaccination mark for its eligible population. This target took about nine months to reach, with strong vaccine pushback among the older population contributing to the delay.
  • So all in all, while there are some requirements, such as mandatory contact tracing and mask-wearing, all hospitality staff requiring at least one dose of the vaccine and capacity requirements – life within the Hong Kong borders is pretty normal.

What’s the situation like at the border, though?

  • While there is a lot of ambiguity around this whole thing, the one thing that seems certain is that Hong Kong will prioritize opening its borders with mainland China before anywhere else.
  • SCMP first reported in mid-November that two anonymous sources familiar with the situation said that people traveling from Hong Kong to the mainland would be able to do so without quarantine starting from the first week of December. But now, there are some reports about this starting from February of next year instead.
  • It’s looking like the whole thing will be a phased approach and that it’ll start with a few hundred people being able to cross the border per day, and then once authorities are sure that this setup is smooth sailing, it’ll increase to a few thousand.
  • But nothing is set in stone because right now, China is dealing with several outbreaks, with the delta variant getting a little out of hand.
  • In terms of Hong Kong with the rest of the world, though, it’s a bit more complicated.

What do you mean?

  • So Hong Kong has divided all travelers into three broad groups: A, B and C.
  • If you’re a Hong Kong resident and are coming back from countries that have been labeled as “high risk,” such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Philippines, Brazil, France – you’ll need to be fully vaccinated and quarantined at a designated quarantine hotel (DQH) for three weeks. During these three weeks, you’ll need to do six tests.
  • Now, if you’re a fully vaccinated traveler from any other country that isn’t in the high-risk category, then you’ll need to be quarantined for 14 days in a DQH and do four tests.
  • And, if you’re from the low-risk category, which is Macao and the mainland, then you’ll need to quarantine at a DQH for seven days and do two tests.

Are there any exceptions?

  • Since the start of the restrictions, there have been two instances where exemptions have been made. Both instances have been met with a bit of criticism from the public.
  • In August, Nicole Kidman flew into Hong Kong to film a new series, and some people noticed that she bypassed some of the quarantine restrictions.
  • “Now that you have created a precedent, does that mean that all foreign movie stars will be exempted when they fly to Hong Kong to film movies?” lawmaker Michael Tien asked Sophia Chan, the health secretary. “If not, can you explain why Nicole was superior to everyone else? Even though I like her a lot.”
  • The other instance that occurred happened earlier this month when Jamie Dimon, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., was allowed to enter the Hong Kong and skip quarantine for 30 hours even though he’s from a country labeled as high-risk.
  • “The government was satisfied that the exemption is justified to facilitate the short visit (30 odd hours) by a small party (Mr Dimon and his chief of staff), the purpose of which is considered to be in the interest of Hong Kong‘s economic development,“ wrote a spokesperson from the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau in an email.

What has this approach meant, though?

  • So, Hong Kong has under 215 confirmed COVID-related deaths, and the mainland has under 4,640 as of late November.
  • Just for a bit of context, India, which has a similar population to the mainland, has had over 467,000 confirmed COVID-related deaths.
  • It has also made it harder for businesses to retain talent, which has been a major criticism from the business community.

What are the criticisms?

  • Compred to places like London and New York, where many people have returned straight to the offices after travel, in Hong Kong, companies here are struggling to retain talent and plan ahead. Now what you have is million-dollar deals being made behind the doors of locked hotel rooms instead of in offices.
  • With this, many say that the quarantine programs are slowing down new investment into the asset management market and interrupting the flow of talent.
  • “Right now … it’s just one-way traffic as it’s impossible for anyone to come here," said an asset manager to Reuters who asked to remain anonymous due to company policy in July this year.

What’s next?

  • Despite the criticisms, though, the zero-case approach is largely praised in China with the population living mostly free of fear from the virus.
  • And, as of right now, the Chinese government, which will shape the Hong Kong government’s policies and regulations toward tackling the virus, seems to just be doubling down on this approach.
  • ​​“Let’s focus on the result,” said Liang Wannian, who’s leading China’s special task force on the COVID-19 response to CCTV in a recent interview. “First, we can quickly extinguish a ferocious outbreak and reduce death and severe disease to a minimum. Everybody can see that. Second, our economy is not impacted by the measures and strategy we took.”
  • Liang also added that easing too early could undo the hard work and overwhelm the country’s medical system.

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