Singapore Confidence Exposes Hong Kong’s Failure in Health Crisis

Fearing Beijing, SAR’s government waffles into incompetence

Once upon a time, Singapore and Hong Kong were reckoned to have equally efficient governmental systems, among the best in Asia, able to respond quickly and without prompting to new public health and other challenges. They were assumed to have contingency plans and stockpiles of materials. In the case of Hong Kong, having been at the epicenter of the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, which spread out of China and killed 299 local residents, it was assumed to be particularly sensitive to the appearance of any similar virus.

The reality is that Singapore has responded quicker than any country to the challenge of the Coronavirus, which metastasized out of the city of Wuhan in China in December. Singapore was almost the first to ban entry of people from the mainland and since has been shown to be very thorough in tracing and testing possible carriers. There have been no reports of shortages of masks or other equipment need to protect either the general public or health care workers. The government has provided very detailed information about the transmissions, their timelines and the links of infected persons.

Hong Kong on the other hand only finally announced a compulsory quarantine on February 5, meanwhile delaying its implementation till February 8 or more than 10 days after Singapore, whose distance from the epicentre makes it a less vulnerable city, introduced stricter measures. The delay between announcement and execution both suggested that it did not want to seem to be surrendering to pressure from the public and striking health care workers. The delay also indicated that despite more than a month when it should have been making contingency plans for large-scale quarantine arrangements, it did very little.

As it is, the earlier closure of some border points came only after huge public pressure, including from pro-government figures. Even then some 26,000 crossed from the mainland on February 4. Most would have been Hong Kong residents but could have included mainlanders and others from Hubei.

Lack of planning and unwillingness to take charge of a crucial public health issue was further illustrated by a shortage of masks, which has persisted since late January. New supplies are quickly snapped up and sold at inflated prices, making them unavailable to many poor and elderly as hard to find even for those able to pay. There is a similar shortage of alcohol and other cleaning materials and there has even been a run on toilet rolls.

Hong Kong’s indecisive responses to the crisis were the direct result of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s determination not to do anything to offend a Beijing which had underplayed the threat at the beginning and made a fetish out of not causing popular alarm. Lacking leadership, Hong Kong’s senior officials did little and a bureaucratic machine capable of action was left idling.

Hong Kong’s cowardly and life-threatening response was obvious, not just to its residents but to the foreign business community, which makes a habit of comparing the city with Singapore. Yet again, an incompetent government beholden to Beijing and local vested interests has shown Hong Kong to be losing its global status and becoming just another city in China.