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China Uses Omicron to Crack Down on Hong Kong
The territory’s panicked bureaucrats haven’t helped
Although Singapore over the past two weeks has been averaging more than 10,000 Covid-19 cases a day, the medical system appears not overly stretched, with just 1,523 in hospital on February 20. Of those, a third were there for non-Covid reasons – 195 receiving oxygen and 39 in intensive care. Most of the latter, along with the few deaths, were among the unvaccinated over 80 years of age.
Singapore remains open to travel by suitably vaccinated and tested foreigners as well as locals, accepting the fact that a few foreign virus imports are irrelevant given the extent of local ones, and that travel can keep the economy moving. Meanwhile in Britain, the 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth also has Covid but she reports mild symptoms and is still doing some work at her desk.
Contrast these developments with the situation with Hong Kong, where official hysteria prevails in the face of case numbers (currently about 6,000 a day). That is far lower than Singapore’s 10,000-plus in a territory with far fewer people. Authorities are apparently so desperate for help that hundreds of supposed experts have been arriving from Guangdong to help the government build temporary hospitals, massively expand testing – and supplying thousands of boxes of Chinese medicines, though what purpose they serve in combating Covid remains a mystery.
With nearly 40,000 active cases, thousands of people in Hong Kong are waiting to get into hospitals and related facilities, with some being tended on the streets (above) although in Singapore and elsewhere they are isolating at home and are provided with medical help if needed.
Beijing sees the Covid rise in Hong Kong as a splendid opportunity to enforce the One Country One System more forcefully than ever. Having successfully used the National Security Law it imposed in 2019 to jail and silence opponents and bring the judiciary to heel, it is now imposing its own Zero Covid policy on the HKSAR, a dire outcome for an international center, “Asia’s World City” as it used to call itself.
For months, Hong Kong’s administration had been mouthing the same zero Covid goals that China has used to lock in millions of its citizens, but it has long been obvious that given the transmissibility of Omicron and its mostly short gestation period, the policy would eventually fail. The city has implemented the most stringent quarantine policy in Asia for international travelers, forcing them to stay in accredited hotels for 21 days. That has since been shortened to 14. It hasn’t stopped the Omicron variant, which recorded a 294 percent increase in cases over the past seven days to nearly 53,000 although it has recorded just 288 deaths.
Now that Omicron has hit, Beijing is ever eager to use this as a reason to direct things on the ground, not just use its Liaison Office in the territory to issue policy guidance. It also has a genuine fear that enough cases will seep across the border to create new outbreaks on the mainland. How far outsider believes China’s Covid data is highly variable. Clearly, it is in a stronger position via its ubiquitous social controls and electronic surveillance to do more than any country to identify cases and lock down districts and whole cities.
Beijing is doubly afraid because of the known poor performance of its Sinovac vaccine compared with Pfizer and other western ones which it has been too proud to use. Given China’s size and levels of self-sufficiency, it can probably maintain this stance for quite a while to come. But forever? That seems doubtful unless it can find a more effective vaccine and then let the virus loose.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, which is already suffering from lack of direct flights to many countries, including the US and UK given the long quarantines in poor conditions which put off business travel and killed tourism, while small businesses, especially restaurants, are unable to survive even with some help from government handouts. The official near-panic derives from inability to take a broad view of the virus challenge, its bureaucrats being under the influence not only of the Liaison Office, and its authoritarian instincts but of local virus experts who seem to delight in scare stories.
Meanwhile, the leading epidemiologist is ignored, let alone those who must take other aspects of public health and social and educational issues into consideration.
Social life has almost come to a halt as groups of more than two people from separate households are banned – though police continue to patrol in groups of at least three. (In Singapore groups of five are allowed). All this is to prevent the supposed thousands of deaths which would otherwise occur.
But evidence from Singapore and elsewhere clearly indicates that Omicron-related mortality is very low and mainly among the unvaccinated over 80s. Hong Kong does indeed have a problem in this respect as its always lackluster vaccination efforts have left many old people unvaccinated even now, particularly those living in care homes where the spread of the disease was so easy.
The government is also unwilling to release the detailed data, as available in Singapore, on levels of sickness, ages of patients, vaccination status, etc. which would allow better independent assessment of the situation. As it is, comparison with Singapore makes clear the combination of incompetence and politically driven scaremongering shown by the Hong Kong authorities. It illustrates how the concept of “two systems” has collapsed under the combined pressures of two endemic powers, Covid and the Chinese Communist Party.