Policy for Pandemics: Handling COVID-19 in Hong Kong

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In collaboration with the Policy for Pandemics newsletter, this is a timeline and briefing of what policy measures Hong Kong has taken during the coronavirus outbreak.

This article has been published on Policy for Pandemics, a newsletter produced by Andrew Potter, a professor at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. It provides short, accessible briefings on relevant policy challenges around the world, along with some fun content at the end for your social distancing pleasure.

For more details not mentioned in this briefing along with supplementary videos, quotes, and articles, check out this interactive timeline, which you can also find below.

A city scarred

News of a possible SARS 2.0 started coming out as early as New Year’s Eve, raising the question of whether the novel coronavirus would rapidly spread from its epicentre, Wuhan, to Hong Kong – and subsequently, the world. 

It did. 

SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, eclipsed the spread and kill rate of its viral cousin, SARS-CoV-1 (“SARS”) in 2003. 

Hong Kong had suffered a heavy blow from SARS in 2003; the disease took 299 lives, the highest death toll outside of mainland China. While consumption, tourism, and travel sectors took a financial hit from the outbreak, these effects were “relatively short-lived”. A handful of jurisdictions were impacted, in particular Toronto and Singapore. For some in Hong Kong, the trauma of the SARS pandemic remains vivid; it permanently embedded new hygienic practices including wearing masks when sick, using separate chopsticks for serving communal dishes and eating in restaurants, and publicising frequent cleaning routines (e.g. door handles and elevator buttons). 

When news came out of a mystery illness that had made its way to HK from China at the end of 2019, pro-democracy protests brought on by the anti-extradition law movement were still going strong. In these circumstances the government was already the subject of widespread public discontent, and a significant number of Hongkongers expressed a deep distrust of the government (as shown in recent elections), especially where China is concerned.

A long way to lockdown

Then COVID-19 arrived.  As of March 27, confirmed viral cases surpassed 500 in Hong Kong, doubling in the span of a week. For a short time, it seemed like Hong Kong had a handle on controlling the disease, despite criticisms that the government was not maximising epidemic prevention measures.

The negative sentiments accrued from the protests seemed to carry over to the public’s attitude towards the handling of the novel coronavirus. After the government did not concede to demands for a complete closure of HK-mainland crossings, over 3,000 hospital employees voted in favour of a strike, leading to a mass walkout. In response, the government implemented quarantine procedures and closed all but two land entry points from China. Those on strike voted to end the action on its fifth day.

As part of the 2020-21 Budget announced in February, the government has earmarked HK$120 billion for its economic relief measures, intended to support Hong Kong as it struggles from the protests and COVID-19. The package includes the HK$10,000 handout to adult residents, which some have criticised for excluding those Hong Kong who live on low incomes but do not have permanent residency. The government then extended this handout to those left out by the initial handout plan by drawing from the Community Care Fund.

What’s happening now

The latest on Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic policy measures include:

  • A government order for all establishments “exclusively or mainly used” for the sale or supply of alcohol to shut down Friday evening has affected approximately 1,200 bars and pubs.
  • A ban on public gatherings of over four people came into effect on Sunday, affecting businesses such as gyms and cinemas. Eateries are not closed but are expected to abide by social distancing measures, such as keeping tables at least 1.5 metres apart and limiting the number of customers inside. Exemptions to this public gathering include public transportation, work places, and judicial proceedings.
  • Passing a HK$215 billion package to cover expenses until this year’s Budget is approved. The funding includes money needed to purchase more protective gear, but pan-democratic lawmakers opposed the bill for allocating $5.5 billion to the police force. The force still faces widespread disapproval after it was accused of hoarding protective medical gear while healthcare workers were spread thin on supplies. The “unnecessary and excessive force” its officers used during last year’s protests is also still fresh on the public’s mind.

Hong Kong will not incur debt as it is dipping into its HK$1.1 trillion fiscal reserves in order to support the city during these extraordinary circumstances. Even though the worst of the pandemic may pass over the next few months, underlying tensions between the people and its government will not. It would not be unreasonable to expect black-clad protesters returning to the streets, chanting “Five Demands, Not One Less” once more.

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