Hong Kong’s Tragic Mishandling of the Coronavirus

Government, in thrall to China, delivers possibility of a major health crisis

The Philippines has become the first country to include Hong Kong in a ban on entry from China as it seeks, belatedly, to stem the spread of infection from the Novel Coronavirus, known technically as 2019-nCoV. But the Philippines is unlikely to be the only such nation as the Hong Kong government has so far rejected calls to close its border with the mainland although the number of cases of the new virus contracted by visitors to or from the mainland has been rising steadily.

Numbers could well escalate as those who have returned from Lunar New Year visits to China develop symptoms – a process that can take up to 11 days – and the virus becomes established in the community at large. It is unusually contagious. The long gestation period before symptoms appear allows it to spread undetected. A study by the Li Ka Shing School of Medicine at Hong Kong University predicts its spread doubles every 5.6 days.

Evidently, the government of Beijing’s puppet chief executive Carrie Lamb has been under orders from Beijing not to close the border or otherwise take drastic measures which would put China in a poor light internationally. But this feeble response has angered health care workers to the extent that some of them have gone on strike, accusing the authorities of wilful disregard for their situation.

The health system is already under stress and faces the prospect of a crisis on Wuhan levels should the virus take hold in the densely populated city, with transmission between residents. So far, cases have been directly linked to those who have visited the mainland, but this is unlikely to last given that it is now clear that the virus can readily be passed through the air or via fecal matter. Unsettlingly, there have been reports of the spread from infected patients with no symptoms to close contacts such as friends or relatives.

Countries such as Singapore, the US, Canada and Australia which have imposed strict controls on visitors from China or those who have recently been there have yet to include Hong Kong in their restrictions. However, that is unlikely to last if local transmission is reported. Vietnam announced, then withdrew inclusion of Hong Kong but countries are getting more sensitive as popular pressure to protect the public grows.

In the Philippines, for instance, the government, ever eager to ingratiate itself with Beijing, declined initially to impose restrictions which it said would be “unfair” to Chinese. However, Malacañang had to change course.

In the region, Singapore, despite its own desire for good relations with China, took the lead in putting its own citizens first with a ban on visitors from China. Thailand and Malaysia have declined to do so to avoid offending Beijing and to try to protect their tourism industries. However, these efforts have been largely futile as China has itself canceled outbound tours so tourist spots such as Phuket and Pattaya have become very quiet, fears of the virus also leading to cancellation of visits by Europeans, Russians, Japanese and others from colder climates looking for a warm winter.

Hong Kong’s government has been hypocritical as well as behind the curve. Although failing to control cross-border movement, it has closed schools at least until March and advised its own employees to work from home if possible, rather than risk contagion via public transport or office. Sessions of the Legislative Council, which might have been expected to apply some pressure to the government, have been suspended.

Official dawdling has also been evident in the shortage of masks, due at least in part to a ban on mask-wearing as a measure against demonstrations. Even Macau, seldom an exemplar of efficient government, has been way ahead of Hong Kong in mask provision and other measures. The Hong Kong administration’s failures have been so glaring that even its normal supporters in the media and political groups have been critical of its feeble responses to the crisis. Given that the territory has what is normally an efficient civil service, it is clear that the problem lies with lack of leadership as Chief Executive Lam waits for instructions from Beijing, which itself is too preoccupied elsewhere and anyway wants to play down the dangers of further spread of the virus.

Hong Kong’s economy is already suffering severely from a collapse in tourism, in local consumer demand and, in due course, in housing prices. But it will get much, much worse if failure to prevent local spread of the virus by not controlling mainland entry leads to Hong Kong-based people being unable to travel for business. The territory has its own troubling model to look back on. The onset of the SARS virus, which also spread from China in 2003, played a major role in driving housing prices to new lows from which it took years to recover.