A security guard reminds visitors to wear face masks at all times in the Leo Gallery during a private viewing of Art Basel Hong Kong, held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on May 25. Photo: Nora Tam
Mike Rowse
Mike Rowse

End the Covid-19 hysteria, reopen Hong Kong and give us back our lives

  • Gripped by panic, even Hongkongers are treating their city as if it were a giant leper colony
  • Only the new government can reverse the fear, and undo the excessive and absurd Covid-19 restrictions, which will allow confidence to return

It is now clear that the first action incoming chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu needs to take on July 1, as soon as he has been sworn in, is to open up Hong Kong to the outside world and to its own people.

There is not a moment to lose. Jumbo Floating Restaurant being towed out of Aberdeen Harbour has been seen all over the world and interpreted by many – friend and foe alike – as symptomatic of our demise. It has also seriously damaged morale at home.

But this is just a symptom of what is wrong. The cause is the sense of panic, veering on hysteria, which has gripped the community over Covid-19. The government and media share responsibility for creating and sustaining this feeling of doom, but only the government can lead us out of it.

Take the issue of numbers: every government statement and news bulletin for months has led with the headline figure of cases detected in the preceding 24 hours. Yet, we all know that what counts is the number of new hospitalisations and of those, the number requiring intensive care.

These are the best indicators of the seriousness of the outbreak which we need to understand to minimise deaths. We know enough about Covid-19 to understand that 100 cases per day could represent disaster whereas 1,000 or even 10,000 might be relatively inconsequential. So why do we lead every news report with the crudest number?


Hong Kong's famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant leaves long-time home for new secret location

Hong Kong's famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant leaves long-time home for new secret location
Just last week, health secretary Sophia Chan Siu-yee quoted the rising daily figure as justification for an absurd new clampdown on bars. This misguided focus helps generate competition for fresh angles on the same basic story, hence items on families who enjoyed a hotpot dinner going down one by one, or children who enjoyed a happy meal with their parents being diagnosed a day after mum.

Is that really news? There is even a special radio show every weekday to describe the latest developments – even if there are none. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.

Then there is the question of a sense of proportion: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just reported his second bout of Covid-19. He was returning from an international conference, expects to work from home for a few days, then resume normal duties.

Ageing rock star Mick Jagger – last seen performing here in 2003 – has apologised for cancelling a concert in Europe, but promised (at the age of 78) to be back on stage soon. These are routine reports, evidence of business as usual. Yet, in Hong Kong, we treat every case as if it were the end of the world.


Hong Kong ‘will not give in’ on quarantine rules, says Carrie Lam in last media event as leader

Hong Kong ‘will not give in’ on quarantine rules, says Carrie Lam in last media event as leader
Government action feeds the hysteria, as does its inaction. For example, all returning Hong Kong residents should be offered home quarantine. This decision could and should have been made months ago. Such a simple step would have transformed morale.

People would have been more willing to travel freely if there was no requirement to book an expensive hotel for their return and, for those testing negative, their fate would be working from home for a few days.

Even those testing positive could have a choice of detention in a government facility or, if domestic circumstances permit, a closely monitored home quarantine. Instead, we cling to a system that requires healthy people to be incarcerated in a small hotel room. There have been documented cases of some contracting infection.


Hong Kong's travel restrictions are increasingly difficult to justify

Hong Kong's travel restrictions are increasingly difficult to justify
And can we please have some sensible rules on mask wearing. For months, we shut all the beaches and swimming pools, probably the city’s safest places. And we insisted on mask wearing everywhere, even in country parks. But wearing a mask is not normal behaviour; it is abnormal and unpleasant, especially in a Hong Kong summer.

It should be reduced as far as possible, for example restricted to crowded places such as rush-hour public transport. The recent relaxation to exempt people undertaking outdoor exercise was welcome but should have gone further. How about when walking the dog early in the morning, or last thing at night?

We were absolutely right to push strongly for vaccination but do we really need all this testing? Medical workers yes, but every schoolchild, every day? And the new requirement for entry to bars and nightclubs invites derision and widespread non-compliance.

Some senior government officials insist that subordinates test themselves daily before agreeing to meet, a practice spreading to the private sector. Lift passengers eye each other suspiciously as if the others are ninjas waiting to attack.

What happened to the Hong Kong that welcomed foreigners with open arms?

In short, Hongkongers are treating the city as if it were a giant leper colony, ringing a bell and shouting “unclean”. Is it any wonder that outsiders don’t want to come here, and even long-term committed citizens, Chinese and foreign alike, are exploring options to leave.

Many of us have friends and relatives elsewhere and we all have access to international media. We know this is not how communities elsewhere are handling the pandemic. Our economy is struggling and tourism has collapsed.

All talk of the rugby Sevens going ahead and major business conferences putting us back on the map is simply pie in the sky unless we open our doors and welcome visitors without quarantine. Let them see our smiling faces.

Mr Lee, we need you to banish the fear, give us back our confidence, and our lives.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises