Tue. Jan 18th, 2022


To make sure they understand the rules of the game, participants in Hong Kong’s squash leagues are required to take a refereeing course. My session was booked for the week between Christmas and New Year. The previous evening it was canceled.

As with many cancellations worldwide, a case of Covid was to blame. Squash players and their families were sent to government quarantine facilities for several days; others were notified by a mandatory contact tracking app of the need to test.

However, the case in question was not quite what it seemed. A junior player traveled from Hong Kong to the USA on December 15. There have been no locally transmitted cases of Covid in the area since June. On their return 11 days later, they tested positive for the virus while in quarantine. The government response involves the detection of all contacts in the 21 days before the positive test result, including in Hong Kong before departure. Close contacts from that period were placed in quarantine.

Anyone who has spent the festive season in Hong Kong is well aware of this phenomenon, which can be referred to as “the ghosts of the Covid past”. A friend who was quarantined in November under similar circumstances told me that the “golden rule” was to avoid contact with people who go abroad for less than 21 days. If such a person goes to the UK or the US – as many have done over Christmas – any infection they contract can catch you.

But apparent absurdities of this kind arise as a result of bureaucracy and cannot be judged in isolation. Like China, the Hong Kong government has built a large zero-Covid infrastructure, which has kept its dense population largely free of the virus through quarantine and detection. The city had 12 786 cases in total – less than the daily case numbers is reported in London this week.

Some people I spoke to who were subject to “retroactive quarantine” nevertheless praised the authorities for their vigilance. One squash professional in Hong Kong, who spent New Year’s Eve in a quarantine facility next to Disneyland, says the government has done a “good job” compared to the “absolute mess” in the US and Europe. The issue, he adds, is that he could not see “where it will stop”.

That issue is more urgent than ever. Hong Kong has now reported a small number of cases of locally transferred Covid since Christmas, which led to the closure of theaters, sports facilities and bars and restaurants after 6 p.m. Flights are prohibited from eight countries.

The zero-Covid approach invites strong opinions and inevitable frustration. I recently heard the government being compared to King Knoet, the figure remembered for his apocryphal inability to return the tide. Others might describe the approach as more like building sea walls to prevent flooding.

Public opinion has so far largely supported the approach. But nervous anticipation hangs in the air. In a city with limited space and strict rules (a positive test means compulsory hospitalization up to two negative tests, followed by a 14-day quarantine), the consequences of a major outbreak will surely be serious.

The measures are likely to continue to evolve. Cases such as the squash center are considered a minor inconvenience against successful restraint. A more disturbing spectacle is underway on the mainland of China, the only other remaining zero-Covid proponent. There, the proliferation of the Omicron variant has led to people being confined in their homes in the city of Xi’an.

It is difficult to say where the line between inconvenience and infringement of freedoms in Hong Kong lies, or to determine at what point fear of the virus can be surpassed by fear of the reaction. Unlike in most places, the population has little experience of the virus itself. The vaccination rate for people over 80 is not 25 percent. But it is unclear how a zero-covid strategy ends. Once established, bureaucracies can be difficult to break down.

On the subject of minor inconvenience, my rearranged referee course was again canceled over the latest developments. Like everyone living in Hong Kong, I’m rather waiting to be taught a whole different set of rules.

thomas.hale@ft.com



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