People wait at a traffic light in Central, Hong Kong, amid the pandemic on October 23, 2020. After almost three years of Covid-prevention restrictions in the city, fatigue has set in. Photo: Winson Wong
Quentin Parker
Quentin Parker

Amid Covid-19 pandemic fatigue and brain drain, Hong Kong – and mainland China – must open up quickly or risk being left behind

  • Home-grown talent and professionals from the Greater Bay Area are no substitute for what is available from a global talent reservoir. Close human connection makes a difference
  • While Hong Kong takes important but baby steps, our rivals are making great strides. Something fundamental needs to shift here – and on the mainland

We are sick and tired not just of hearing about Covid-19 but having to live in its shadow. What more is there to say? Well, I’m back after nine weeks in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, returning to Hong Kong in late August after my first academic trip abroad in almost three years.

All except two weeks were spent on professional, long-delayed activities: an important satellite project, a key research paper completed and submitted while working directly with collaborators, a scientific database porting project initiated, a conference talk given. This trip was a vital reboot to the many research endeavours put on hold or run on Zoom.
After months of effort, I had been given permission to leave Hong Kong and meet work colleagues overseas again. I was also, at long last, able to see some family. I am very lucky to have had these opportunities, especially given what so many endure here, but this is the nature of my vocation and why I was lured to Hong Kong in the first place.
Like many other professionals in Hong Kong, my experience speaks to the loss of vital function many have suffered, the continuing impact of which should not be underestimated.

The contrast between my travels and what awaited me when I returned could not be starker. In Europe, I was free to mingle, eat, drink and, yes, even be merry without worrying about masks, RAT tests, PCR obligations, quarantine and myriad other small but tiresome inconveniences that made coming back much harder than expected.

Farewell Hong Kong. You are part of who I am

Reports of a brain drain are no surprise under such ongoing, even if recently relaxed, restrictions. It is more like a tsunami of lost talent, a torrent of foregone opportunities, a cascade of failed and failing businesses under a cloud of Covid-19 fatigue in a city now missing the tourist dollar and visibly less cosmopolitan.

This is while the rest of the world and our competitors moved on months ago.

They have tacitly accepted living with the virus. Hong Kong known for its excellence as a global finance, trade and transport hub and the envy of our rivals, is now an outlier of a different sort – at risk of further descending into reduced significance in all these areas as our brightest and best leave.
We can talk about nurturing home-grown talent and attracting it from the Greater Bay Area. But that does not replace what is available from a global talent reservoir – the international experiences and crucial connections that build wealth and opportunity. Close human connection makes a difference.


Abandoned pets fill Hong Kong shelters amid mass emigration of city’s residents

Abandoned pets fill Hong Kong shelters amid mass emigration of city’s residents
Many of those who left are unlikely to return. There are many reasons people choose to depart, but the significant uptick is clearly due to one – Covid-19 and the locally enforced policies surrounding it.

For many, what we have endured for nearly three years has caused such fatigue that even small impositions can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In academia, the exodus is clear; I am aware of a university staff accommodation block having lost one-third of its occupants in the last 18 months.

How Hong Kong can stem the brain drain amid a global battle for talent

I would urge any local university that still retains a “ retire at 60” policy to consider placing a two-year “Covid-19” moratorium on it. Given the number of academics who have chosen to leave and the difficulties in recruitment and retention, such a moratorium would provide some staffing continuity and security until the situation can improve.
Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has hit the ground running and adopted a more pragmatic and dynamic approach to solving such issues as talent retention. But while we take important but baby steps, our rivals are making great strides. Something fundamental needs to shift here – and on the mainland.


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‘What needs to be done will be’: Hong Kong’s next leader John Lee | Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo
China has amazed the world with its accomplishments over the last 20 years. During the pandemic, it built massive hospital complexes almost overnight and mobilised tens of thousands of health professionals to repeatedly test millions of people.

What if China were to apply its powerful national mentality to a vaccination programme focused on the elderly and vulnerable, using the best vaccines available?

While the West focused on maximising vaccinations among the old and infirm early on, its containment processes were laxer and imposed too late. In China, lockdowns saved countless lives but vaccine uptake among the elderly has been slow. This has prevented a relaxing of controls and effectively sealed China off from the rest of the world. But the world desperately needs an open China as soon as possible.
China has done better than any other nation in controlling the ravages of Covid-19 via a world-beating system of robust health checks and rigid lockdowns. But putting people’s health above commerce and trade has also been at great cost to its economy.

It is time for a policy re-evaluation, given the high transmissibility but lower mortality rates of the latest Covid-19 strains. It cannot be contained without immense continuous effort and indefinitely closed borders. The Chinese way was the right policy early on but things have evolved.

There is no issue of losing face by adapting to the new realities. Globally, it is the new normal and a shift to a regime of control, vaccination and boosters is necessary so life can resume.

Quentin Parker is an astrophysicist based at the University of Hong Kong and director of its Laboratory for Space Research