Illustration: Craig Stephens
Adam Au
Adam Au

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
Long before the government proposed introducing a health code system on a par with the mainland health codes, Hong Kong people were already accustomed to daily Covid-19 news. Now, save for face masks and travel restrictions, Hong Kong society seems to have largely returned to normal.
Concerns have arisen over whether this announcement is a ploy to keep Hong Kong citizens under surveillance, a thinly veiled attempt by the new administration to ingratiate themselves with the mainland authorities, or a last-ditch effort to tackle a predicament fumbled by the previous administration.

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.

Many critics use the case of Macau as a rebuttal. Macau implemented a similar colour-coded system, yet saw a rise in cases that sparked a week of lockdown. Thus, there is a danger of an outbreak being blamed on an alleged system failure.

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.


All Macau casinos close in latest Covid-19 outbreak

All Macau casinos close in latest Covid-19 outbreak
The Covid-19 situation is constantly changing. Case numbers are high, and are climbing. People are anxious. Health experts are struggling to deal with the widespread effects of the coronavirus and its variants. The new “traffic-light style” health code system won’t be a panacea. After all, nothing is foolproof.

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.

Recently, an alleged data leak affecting 1 billion Chinese citizens was carried out after the online database was left unsecured and publicly accessible for months, it was reported. In the United States, agencies including the Inland Revenue and police departments have a long history of being subject to data breaches. Such sensitive information is often inadequately guarded.


Hong Kong health chief says any hotel quarantine reduction will be based on Covid infection data

Hong Kong health chief says any hotel quarantine reduction will be based on Covid infection data
Ineptitude, or in some cases negligence, is inevitable given the prevalence of data mining activities – whether as a matter of political expediency or an exploitative commercial activity. However, no nation has managed to completely balance privacy and collective welfare in its public policies. As the amount of data out there continues to grow, more leaks and breaches will occur.

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.

Besides, with the U-turn on the real-name registration requirement for the Covid-19 app, it is unclear whether the colour-coded traffic light system will divulge any more personal information than was already available.


Hong Kong picnic group created to bypass Covid-19 tracking app

Hong Kong picnic group created to bypass Covid-19 tracking app

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.

For example, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa’s promise to build 85,000 homes per year was pilloried and blamed for the 1997 housing market crash. Yet, 25 years later, we have to wonder whether Hong Kong’s housing problems would still be dominating political discourse if Tung’s policy had been accepted by the public and lawmakers.

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.


Hong Kong has until 2049 to fix its housing crisis, but is it possible?

Hong Kong has until 2049 to fix its housing crisis, but is it possible?

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.

Determining where people’s rights begin and end will always be a vexed process because it goes to the heart of the arguments of collective benefits versus individual autonomy. Yet, as the fifth wave of Covid-19 – which began in January – showed, when we fail to properly protect our citizens, the costs can be significant.

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