Is mainland China frustrated with Hong Kong’s inability to control the rise of Covid-19 cases and would the might of the communist party’s draconian Zero-Covid policy be implemented in the island if things do not improve?
Covid-19 watchers in Hong Kong are worried that the island may be asked to pass the “Covid loyalty” test if the cases do not reduce in the coming week. That would be ironical “icing on the cake” coming in the wake of a spate of tough mainland laws that broke the back of the island’s pro-democracy spirits.
New Covid cases started spiralling suddenly after January 22 and they are in their multiple thousands today. The reported case figures on a given date do not necessarily show the number of new cases on that day – this is due to delays in reporting. At the same time, the actual number of cases is likely to be much higher than the number of confirmed cases – this is due to limited testing.
The contrast between the mainland and Hong Kong are evident at first sight. The media reported how cities and towns in Chian turned into ghost towns overnight as party officials and health authorities, along with security forces, forced citizens into a strict quarantine, with people worried even about basics like milk and bread. Millions of people were asked to get themselves tested repeatedly and there was no question of lifting the quarantine until all the millions tested negative.
In contrast, Hong Kong is still a bustling metropolis. The city government has decided against a strict lockdown. For, given the island’s status as a financial and trading hub, a lock down will cripple the economy within days and wipe out businesses worth billions of dollars.
So, the hospitals are caught in an unprecedented frenzy. They are weighed down by uncontrollable numbers of people trying to get admitted. People stand in testing lines that wind across parks and football fields. The authorities have tried the next best thing to a general lockdown – micro-lockdowns of streets or buildings or gated communities. But it is not working. Such is the people’s alarm to get tested or admitted.
Still, the number of deaths predicted by medical scientists is nowhere near that of other Asian countries including India. Researchers have warned that by summer the latest wave could kill nearly 1,000 people — more than four times the number that have died of Covid in Hong Kong over the past two years.
The media reported: “The city’s flailing response has exposed a crucial weakness in its ability to handle the coronavirus. Unlike other places facing a surge of the Omicron variant, Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese city, cannot choose to live with the virus; Beijing continues to demand local elimination. But the city, which retains certain freedoms unheard-of in the mainland, also cannot wield Beijing’s full authoritarian tool kit or nearly unlimited manpower to stamp out transmission at any cost.”
The pro-China leader of the island, Carrie Lam, is also under increasing pressure from the mainland to implement the Zero-Covid policy. It is called “dynamic zero” on the island.
She is quoted as saying: “‘Dynamic zero’ — I admit this is a policy requirement of the mainland. But I am not the initiator, so if you want an authoritative definition of ‘dynamic,’ I’m sorry, I really can’t explain it.”
What she is not saying openly is this: The mainland is forcing the city administration to implement the harsh communist model to get rid of the virus. However, health experts are worried that certain measures, such as citywide mandatory testing, would be impractical in Hong Kong, and “could also stir anger in a public already deeply distrustful of the government”.
As media analysts say, “but as Beijing exerts ever-tighter control over Hong Kong, through a national security law and sweeping crackdown on dissent, those considerations may start to carry less weight”.
Meanwhile, eagerness of a section of the Hong Kong authorities to “embrace tougher restrictions” is being seen as “a proxy for (their) loyalty to Beijing”. Tian Feilong, a law professor at Beijing’s Beihang University who studies Hong Kong, says: “The loopholes and oscillation in Hong Kong’s antivirus strategy show that some officials have not met the requirements for ‘firm patriotism.’” For the time being, these ideological questions have taken the back seat as Hong Kongers are grappling with extending medical care to the thousands of patients. Nearly 15,000 people who are said to have tested positive are running for pillar to post for hospital admissions or public isolation units. Things have become alarmist because after a gap of five months with no death reported, suddenly the island city has witnessed dozens of deaths within a week. Omicron being a highly transmissible variant, there is no saying when and how the positivity rate will be reined in.