Peter Kammerer
SCMP Columnist
Shades Off
by Peter Kammerer
Shades Off
by Peter Kammerer

Has Carrie Lam’s tardiness in closing Hong Kong’s borders condemned me to a holiday on Christmas Island?

  • The Hong Kong chief executive’s incremental closing of the border with China has created uncertainty for many travellers as governments around the world shut out arrivals from the city or subject them to quarantines
Flight bookings I made three months ago are, as it turns out, up in the air. The Hong Kong government’s incremental closing of the border with the mainland has put at risk my chances of taking a break in Australia next week.
If there had been a prompt shutdown to prevent travellers carrying the coronavirus, I, and tens of thousands of other holidaymakers and businesspeople, wouldn’t be facing this uncertainty. But with several countries and airlines having already put in place suspensions, travel plans have been reduced to a matter of wait-and-see.
Many expatriates and foreign passport holders have already made their move, jetting off with their families to greater health certainty and to take advantage of schools being closed until at least March. It’s a sensible thing to do – government ineptitude has ensured Hong Kong is a mess, with office workers often being told to work from home where children are already ruling the roost and panic buying ensuring supermarket shelves have been stripped of rice, cooking oil, toilet paper and other daily necessities.
Worryingly, the most important of all, face masks, hand sanitiser and alcohol-based hand rub are nowhere to be found at reasonable price, if at all. The pharmacy near my home that is usually stocked to overflowing is now all but bare and a sign at the counter says it all: written in Chinese is the single word “No”. For those able to get away and unaffected by flight cancellations, now is the time.

But some of us have prior bookings and the countdown to those schedules is anxiety-ridden. In my case, questions abound: will my flight be cancelled or can I leave as planned? Living in a densely populated city, where confirmed cases of infection have already been reported and given the possibility that I could have come into contact with an infected person, should I even get on a plane and perhaps spread the virus? Or should I just cancel and go another time?

Hong Kong, an international city, shouldn’t be leaving so many people in doubt. A fast-thinking, sure-footed government would have responded promptly to the threat of a deadly virus.

Travellers from mainland China face jail if they defy Hong Kong quarantine

There was the experience of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, after all, and mainland China has long been the source of infectious outbreaks that have caused alarm and distress locally. To respond in such a piecemeal manner in the face of so much advice to act promptly raises questions about the moral fortitude of our political leaders.
Some governments haven’t been so lax. The Philippines and Italy have temporarily suspended all flights to and from China, Hong Kong included. Two American airlines have followed suit and Virgin Australia – fortunately not the airline I was flying with – has permanently cancelled the route, citing a poor business environment. Adding to my concern, 14-day quarantine periods are now standard procedure when dealing with people who have come from affected areas.
A notice explaining precautions to be taken by people travelling to Wuhan, China, is seen at a terminal of Rome’s Fiumicino airport on January 21. Photo: AP
My holiday in Melbourne to see relatives and friends, get some fresh air, do some shopping and experience a change of food and accents, is for just 10 days. Spending that time in quarantine and then some would obviously be no fun – particularly as the place Australia has chosen is a camp for illegal migrants on the tiny territory of Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean 1,550 kilometres west of the Australian mainland and 350km south of the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra.

It has an intriguing history and most its population of about 1,800 are of Chinese, Malay and Indian ancestry, but I’ve no intention of spending my leisure time in what is essentially a prison. Nor is it likely to have well-stocked shops and fine cuisine available in its main community, officially named Flying Fish Cove, but referred to by locals as simply “The Settlement”.

There’s no suggestion right now that my flight this weekend won’t go ahead. If it does, I’d like to point out I’ve already got a full shopping list that will fill my luggage to brimming. So, don’t give me extra orders of surgical masks, hand sanitiser and toilet paper.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post