The Inflexibility of the Zero COVID Strategy Laid its Deathbed: Hong Kong

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Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

The Zero-COVID policy intends to use control and suppression to stop transmission of COVID-19. It embodies a process of ‘Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support’, believing in suppressive measures such as border quarantine, lockdowns to be the solution to reducing COVID-19 cases. While in theory this appears sound, where new outbreaks would be contained before they spread widely, how has this ended catastrophically in Hong Kong as soon as the Omnicron variant crossed its borders?

According to CNN, locally transmitted cases surged past 312,000 in the city in the last two weeks. Considering its population of approximately 7 million, this is a public health policy failure and demonstrates a weakness of inflexibility for the Hong Kong administration. The Zero-COVID policy has created a climate of fear, where many would choose to not report their positive COVID results to not be susceptible to its isolation procedures, lasting three weeks. This means that the strategy inevitably falls flat, which is why its status in the world as having one of the highest fatality COVID rates in the world should not come as a surprise.

Furthermore, there is clear evidence that this strategy is not sustainable in the long term. Wards are not only filled with patients but are also operating beyond their capacity. The COVID fatality rate has gone to an extreme where morgues are overflowing and bodies are stored for hours at room temperature, according to some nurses. Pressure is being placed on these wards to continue this Zero COVID strategy, despite the failures of Hong Kong’s vaccination programme.

There is a high proportion of unvaccinated people, mainly those who are elderly and most vulnerable to the pandemic. According to Hong Kong Free Press, many elderly people struggle to understand the incentives of vaccination, considering that the elderly have been akin to being locked up in their homes for almost two and a half years now. A vaccination would mean no difference, as they are classified as high risk. The reality is that the Zero-COVID policy expects the elderly to submit their rights entirely to the government for promises of ‘longer life’ and for the ‘economy’, but these promises fall on deaf ears as these promises are not prioritised by its elderly population. Intuitively, it is entirely plausible to see that elderly people may have a propensity to favour ‘quality of life’, which is not embodied by the Zero-COVID policy. It is rather result based in the sense that it assumes that the elderly people would voluntarily get injections as they prioritise their ‘life’. There were little incentives that were set in place, such as how perhaps the elderly would be allowed to enjoy normal public activities, such as walking in the park, or seeing their loved ones. Perhaps, if these incentives were set in place, the city would not be on the verge of economic collapse.

The inadequacy of the policy once again feeds into existing problems, such as the exodus of Hong Kong residents that has been taking place since the Anti-Extradition-Bill movement. The pre-existing political unrest, in combination with the failure of the Zero-COVID policy has rendered trust in governmental institutions to a marginal quantity. People see vaccines as politicised weapons and they no longer trust the vaccine. In this context, the low vaccination rate is understandable considering the information asymmetry that exists. There is no way for people to verify what is in a vaccine, and the expectation of the government seems to be that citizenry should blindly trust governmental institutions, despite there being a preconception that the government has failed them in the past few years. For these reasons, the low vaccination rate was an inevitable result for elderly people. Little benefits of vaccination are reasons that culminate in the crisis, that even if people are vaccinated, they must be subjected to intensive lockdown procedures. This catalysed the rate of the exodus, where immigration data shows that over 94,000 Hong Kong residents departed the city in 2022 alone, choosing to live in a foreign country where measures are more liberal, and quality of life is significantly higher.

While most countries have moved away from ‘elimination’ of the virus and pursue ‘mitigation’ instead, Hong Kong’s decision to adhere to the policy is strange. The belief that it would be able to adapt to all situations, even when a variant has demonstrated high transmission rates in countries across the globe is nothing short of ignorance. ‘Too little, too late’ becomes the media discourse, fuelling further already aggravated sentiments towards the government and placing pressure on the relationship between the institution and its people. It also ignores normative questions of the policy – on what to do with migrant workers. Migrant workers who contract COVID-19 are advised to get to a hospital, but considering the healthcare system on the verge of collapse, they are shunned away. They are left on the streets to fend for themselves, not being able to go to their place of work or isolate according to the Zero-COVID policy. This is a stark contrast to employees who enjoy high pay, where companies are willing to pay for their hotel quarantines. Therefore, the policy could even be seen as discriminatory – where while those who work for corporations can enjoy sanctuary, those who work low-paying jobs are left to fend for themselves.

The case in Hong Kong should serve as a public policy reminder that not all solutions are absolute. The initial prowess of the Zero-COVID policy which eradicated COVID-19 in Hong Kong for months should not mean an expectation that it can combat any challenges that are thrown its way. Providing clear incentives for the elderly to be vaccinated should act as a beginning of departure away from the stoic, bureaucratic Zero-COVID strategies embraced by the city.

By Gabriel,

Gabriel is a second year Politics and International Relations at UCL, passionate about normative questions embodied by public policy.

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