With mainland China rapidly easing up on its dynamic zero-Covid policy, the critical question confronting Hong Kong now is whether it wants to get ahead of the curve by removing most (if not all) of its remaining Covid restrictions. Failure to do so may well leave Hong Kong as the last jurisdiction in the world in 2023 to still have pandemic restrictions from 2020. There is little doubt that Covid restrictions in Hong Kong have delayed, quite unnecessarily, the economic recovery that should have occurred in the second half of the year, if not earlier. In the third quarter of the year, Hong Kong’s economy shrank by a shocking 4.5 per cent compared to a year ago. This comes after two consecutive quarters of contraction (of -3.9 per cent in the first quarter and of -1.3 per cent in the second quarter). In contrast, Singapore ’s economy grew by 4.4 per cent in the third quarter, after rising 4.4 per cent and 3.8 per cent in the first and second quarters respectively. For the year as a whole, Hong Kong’s economy is expected to shrink by about 3 per cent whereas Singapore’s is likely to grow by about 4 per cent. This difference is due almost entirely to Hong Kong clinging to pandemic restrictions far longer than necessary, as well as to China’s sluggish economic performance of 2022 – itself a consequence of zero-Covid. Not only has Hong Kong paid a huge economic price for its failed Covid policy, but zero-Covid as practised in Hong Kong has done little to save lives or protect its healthcare system. Over a three-month period earlier this year, the Omicron wave killed 0.1 per cent of the Hong Kong population (or one in 1,000 people) despite adherence to a zero-Covid strategy. To put that tragedy into perspective, Britain and the United States each saw about 0.1 per cent of their populations die of Covid over a nine-month period in 2020 – before vaccines were available and when the coronavirus was more lethal than the Omicron variant that brought Hong Kong’s health system to its knees. Where is China headed? To be fair to the Hong Kong authorities, their implementation of zero-Covid has been far more humane and much less draconian than the variety practised on the mainland. But after nearly three years of fighting an unwinnable war against Covid, the Chinese people are sick and tired of zero-Covid. Widespread but short-lived protests against the inhumanity and brutality of zero-Covid finally made obvious what the Chinese authorities should always have known: that the damage caused by zero-Covid to people’s lives and livelihoods was far worse than the public health harms caused by Covid-19 itself. Now that the Chinese authorities have come to this realisation (even if belatedly), we should expect them to move quickly to abolish the three key planks of dynamic zero-Covid: mass testing, centralised quarantines and lockdowns. The central government is also expected soon to downgrade Covid-19 from the top class of infectious diseases, putting the virus on the same level of endemic diseases such as HIV and viral hepatitis. In short, the Chinese authorities are abandoning the zero-Covid policy they have pursued dogmatically and defended ideologically for nearly three years without explicitly saying so. Inevitably, they will begin to view Covid-19 not as a mortal enemy, but as a “normal” respiratory disease that society can and must live with. Whether they can pull off this about-face without a significant loss of credibility and public trust remains to be seen, but there is little doubt the policy U-turn is well under way. The growing contradictions between the official rhetoric of zero-Covid and the reality of pandemic restrictions being loosened quickly will leave the Hong Kong government in an awkward position. Having defended Covid restrictions in Hong Kong as being consistent with the mainland’s zero-tolerance approach, authorities will find it increasingly difficult to justify why any of these restrictions should still be in place. As these restrictions become less defensible and cause more economic damage, compliance and public support for them will also decline – as we saw on the mainland. In short, as China quietly drops zero-Covid, Hong Kong’s Covid restrictions will soon become publicly indefensible and economically unsustainable, if they aren’t already so. Exiting the pandemic in Hong Kong In January this year, as Hong Kong was just entering the worst of the Omicron wave, I had written a piece arguing that not only was zero-Covid irrational in Hong Kong’s context, but that there was “a major but underappreciated risk of Hong Kong pursuing zero-Covid longer than necessary. When the Chinese authorities eventually decide to live with Covid, they are unlikely to do so with a bang. …(W)hen China changes tack, it will do so gradually, quietly, and without any fanfare. Cities that have stronger governmental capacity, such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, may also be allowed to experiment more boldly to live with Covid”. I also pointed out that Hong Kong might struggle to adapt if mainland authorities were to shift to a different Covid-19 strategy, as “the absence of an explicit signal from Beijing would make it harder for Hong Kong authorities to set clear policy directions, and to calibrate its Covid policies accordingly. … This is hardly conducive for restoring Hong Kong’s position as the pre-eminent hub for international firms trying to enter the Chinese market, even as cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen open up with greater vigour”. Is Hong Kong finally ready to reopen to the world in 2023? The risk of Hong Kong maintaining Covid restrictions far longer than necessary, and causing it to be less competitive against other Chinese cities that have been more isolated than Hong Kong has been the last three years, may well become a reality – and faster than Hong Kong’s policymakers realise. Clearly, the only sensible and prudent approach is for the Hong Kong government to anticipate that cities on the mainland might ease their pandemic controls quickly, and to stay one step ahead by getting rid of Hong Kong’s remaining Covid restrictions before they cause the city to be even less competitive on the global stage. Specifically this would mean three things. First, the three days of medical surveillance of all inbound travellers should be scrapped or, at the very least, replaced with just a PCR test on arrival. Now that Covid-19 is already endemic in Hong Kong, there is no justifiable reason to subject inbound travellers to stricter requirements than residents. Second, and also as a result of Covid-19 becoming endemic in Hong Kong, contact tracing should be discontinued. This would also allow the “Leave Home Safe” app to be retired. Third, Hong Kong’s masking rules are increasingly out of step with global best practices. They should either be abolished, or replaced with a requirement to mask up only on public transport and in healthcare facilities (as is the case in Singapore). A failure to do these common-sense things will not only prolong Hong Kong’s economic misery in the short term, but also risk doing long-term damage to the city’s international standing – especially as Covid-era restrictions on the mainland are jettisoned quickly. Donald Low is senior lecturer and professor of practice in public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, director of the university’s Institute for Emerging Market Studies, and director of Leadership and Public Policy Executive Education.