Hong Kong’s McRefugees have nowhere to go, as fast-food outlets close early to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Nora Tam
by Philip Yeung
by Philip Yeung

Hong Kong’s paltry coronavirus relief is cold comfort to the jobless and needy

  • If officials think that with a HK$10,000 cash handout, they have done their duty, they are sadly mistaken. When bad times hit, the poor are hit the hardest, and many are now in dire straits, with no social safety net to keep them afloat

If you are down and out, you had best hightail it out of Hong Kong. This city of Rolls-Royce and Gucci bags is the only modern metropolis without a social safety net.

Government officials must wrestle with two urgent concerns: “flatten the curve” of infections, and cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus. They are faltering on both counts.
The government did buy itself a modicum of goodwill by announcing a HK$10,000 (US$1,300) cash handout for each adult permanent resident. But it will be months before the desperate see the money. If the government thinks that, with the announced handout, it has done its duty, it is sadly mistaken.
Buried in the avalanche of pandemic news, for instance, is a tragic story of a middle-age couple who killed themselves when their income dried up: the man was a jewellery salesman and his wife a cosmetics saleswoman, both businesses hit hard, first by the violent street protests and now the pandemic. How many more are in the depths of despair?

I don’t understand how we can have a modern economy without unemployment benefits. These are basic taxpayer rights. But here, if you are out of work, you are basically on your own.

Officials say the latest jobless rate is 3.7 per cent. That’s pure fiction. A recent survey by a labour rights group found that job losses had jumped fourfold after the outbreak. Without a mandatory system for jobless benefit claims, how do officials arrive at these low numbers?
In the United States, when the pandemic struck, initial jobless claims skyrocketed to 3.3 million in the week ending March 21. The next week, 6.6 million more filed for benefits. Without an unemployment insurance programme in Hong Kong, officials are free to under-report the impact to justify inaction.

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In the old days, officials saw themselves as “parent officials” who took care of their people as a family duty. But today’s officials, with their iron rice bowls, are immune to the pain of the people.

Our coffers are overflowing with a surplus of HK$1 trillion plus, salted away for a rainy day. Can’t officials see it’s pouring down now?
The US has rolled out a historic US$2 trillion stimulus package, providing US$1,200 for each adult earning US$75,000 or less, and US$500 for each child. The package tops up jobless benefits with an extra US$600 per week for up to four months. There is a separate programme for the self-employed.

Hong Kong’s handout won’t last the needy a month. A poky subdivided flat alone eats up HK$6,000 per month in rent, plus utilities.

The labour lobby is demanding a bolder bailout plan – giving the jobless HK$5,800 each per month for half a year to help them ride out the crisis. For the army of furloughed workers who live hand to mouth, it’s literally a matter of life and death. With rent at sky-high levels, any relief is only a Band-Aid. The poor need longer-term solutions.

Revolution of our times or disaster in the making?

A HK$5,800 monthly subsidy would go a long way in much cheaper neighbouring mainland cities. Hong Kong’s severe housing shortage can only be solved by a regional approach. But thinking regional takes a leap of political imagination.

When bad times hit, the poor are hit the hardest, none more so than the nearly 400 McRefugees, who can’t afford a roof over their heads and used to sleep at 24-hour McDonald’s outlets. These are now closed at night, thanks to social distancing; sleeping rough is the McRefugees’ only option.
Their tale of woe is Hong Kong’s problem writ large, an indictment of a government which does not take care of the vulnerable. How long must hunched-back 80-year-old women keep scavenging for scraps to stay alive? And how many more must suffer because our leaders lack compassion?
Remember, Hong Kong’s housing crisis is entirely man-made, thanks to the policies of former leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who sent property prices spiralling ever higher by suspending land sales and stopping public housing construction.

His folly changed our society forever. That’s the cause of much of the social unrest. Officials must now govern with a little political imagination and a large dose of compassion.

Philip Yeung is a freelance speech-writer and ghostwriter