Why Hong Kong’s Covid-19 health code is not some Faustian bargain
- The new system won’t mean giving up all our rights to privacy in return for a shot at a normal life. And it is by no means a panacea for all our pandemic woes
- But in a dynamic Covid-19 situation with few options left, a health code can help reduce transmission risks and aid economic recovery
These barbed arrows of criticism are understandable but not necessarily realistic. Many lament that Hong Kong has not followed others around the world in relaxing controls and opening borders. But what if our Covid-19 cases and death rates surge again?
As has been shown time and again, a sudden upswing in infections can overload tracing and testing capacity, resulting in delays in contact tracing, thus increasing transmissibility. The health code can help drive down transmission risks without causing system fatigue.
But if such measures weren’t in place, any surge in infections would lead to criticism of the administration for not doing enough. Unfortunately, too many opinions purporting to reveal political conspiracies are conjured up in front of a computer screen.
If Hong Kong wishes to put the pandemic behind us, we have few options left. Yet, we cannot do nothing. With public health at stake, officials have a duty to continually fine-tune policies rather than adhering to rigid ideologies. The challenge is to include new insights while recognising that there is often a trade-off amid imperfect information.
Some have denounced the new health code system, saying it goes against the public desire for a greater relaxation of Covid-19 measures and could impact on privacy rights. And it is not necessary to look far for examples of bureaucratic abuse.
Limiting what data the government is allowed to collect and what it can do with the information could help allay some fears – although the law often contains caveats for times when public safety overrides the right to privacy.
Government policies are not necessarily evil. And some people may fall foul of even seemingly good policies, while new policies can have a tough time securing public buy-in. Good policy may not be popular, especially in the short term.
Any sensible government knows it cannot ignore the interplay between public wants and needs. But we should not be cajoled into believing that the potential downsides of any new policy will be balanced by its benefits to society.
Good policy is not a zero-sum game. The benefits of the health code, for example, may take some time to become apparent, whether it is in reducing the number of Covid-19 cases or helping the city rebound economically by building trust and confidence.
Hong Kong has been torn apart in the past by acts of political expediency. Before rushing to welcome the new proposal or blithely dismissing it, we should judge it on a balance of proportionality and welcome dialogue with all stakeholders.
Almost three years have lapsed since the first confirmed Covid-19 case in Hong Kong. Many desperately want the government to swap its episodic, patchwork policy for coherent, holistic guidelines.
Implementing a health code is not some Faustian bargain where we must give up all our rights to privacy in return for a shot at a normal life. The global increase of data abuse does call for greater bureaucratic intervention. Hong Kong’s government must ensure that the new health code system’s benefits for society far outweigh any short-term compromises.
Adam Au is the head of legal at a Hong Kong-based healthcare group