"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"Workers, tolling in the swelter under an Observatory issued heat-stroke warning, denied an hour in the air-conditioning"
As we all know by now, Covid-19 distorts time. It feels like years ago that I praised the Hong Kong government's handling of the pandemic. Yet, in truth, it was April. Sadly, things aren't looking so fine and dandy now. Cases are on the rise with a new record of 149 infections today (July 30).
Meanwhile, the deaths are stacking up at 24. With grim inevitability, Covid-19 found its way into our care-homes, felling the most vulnerable citizens. Besides, our leaders are starting to wobble.
In the league table of Covid-19 performance, Hong Kong was sitting near the top. But I forgot to factor in that Carrie Lam, our Chief Executive, is capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Her first mistake was to surrender to the pressure from the catering sector by allowing gatherings of eight people. This move came before Father's Day on June 21. That weekend the whole of Hong Kong went crazy. People hit the beaches, as others filled the restaurants. A mood of exuberance filled the air. We're back to normal!
In early July, we paid the price as Covid-19 numbers started climbing. Slow at first, and then accelerating. Then it became plain that quarantine exemptions for over 30 groups of inbound travellers helped reseed the pandemic. Cross-boundary goods vehicle drivers, aircraft crew members and company executives with dispensation contributed to the surge. While some had been pointing out these loopholes for some time, the government wasn't listening.
Compelling evidence exists that the recent outbreak in Kowloon, which is working its way through care-homes, came from imported cases. One cluster has the signature of an Italian virus, and the other came from Pakistan. I take some comfort that our scientists can track the groups.
Did willful blindness or reluctance to act creep into the decision-making process? The conflicting messaging from officials are raising doubts. For example, Sophia Chan Siu-chee , the Secretary for Food and Health, proclaimed on July 28 that cases should drop off soon. Immediately others in the government contradicted her stance.
Compounding the confusion are 'experts' — including leading professors and doctors —who are making frequent interventions and statements. These scientists are as divided as the rest of us on how to tackle the outbreak. Further, you can detect in some a political agenda as point scoring is going on. That a few of our leading medics rejected help from the Mainland sounded churlish and partisan.
Then this week we faced a de-facto lock-down. Dining-in at restaurants stopped, and masks must be worn in all public areas. That means indoors and outdoors, including while exercising. The government also encouraged us to stay home.
On the mask issue, the government had the good grace to give exemptions for eating, drinking and on medical grounds; but gave no such favour to smokers. Thus, removing a mask to smoke is an offence. Now, while I'm a non-smoker and would discourage anyone from the habit, this situation is silly. The government is inviting defiance.
But it gets worse. Having banned dining-in, we saw woeful scenes of old folks, construction workers and a multitude of others struggling outside in the heat with their take-away meals. People perched on curbs, on park benches and even between litter bins. Workers, tolling in the swelter under an Observatory issued heat-stroke warning, denied an hour in the air-conditioning. Then following a substantial public backlash, the government relented. Dining-in will resume with social distancing applied.
Of course, anyone with an ounce of savvy would know many people in Hong Kong rely on dining-in. Without it, they struggle. Hong Kong people live in cramped flats, and a fair number cannot cook at home. That Carrie Lam and her team didn't appreciate this dimension speaks volumes of their disconnect from ordinary folk. Remember Typhoon Mangkhut?
Then again, Carrie Lam has led a sheltered life, chauffeured around in a limo, moving from one air-conditioned bubble to the next. Who can forget her struggle to use an octopus card or find toilet paper? That's a result of 40-odd years trapped in the privileged world of a senior civil servant.
One other aspect of these rules shows the government's ignorance; making us all wear masks while exercising outdoors away from others. There is no real-world proof that joggers or walkers have transmitted Covid-19 in the country parks or anywhere else. Yet, getting outside exercise in these stressful times is a palliative that can't be taken if we are gasping behind a damp mask. How many heart attacks, how much ill-health and stress result?
It would be arrogant of me to suggest I have all the answers, far from it. Never has there been a better demonstration that there are no definitive solutions. The 'experts' can't agree, and the government has to balance all manner of conflicting demands across society. But a fair start would be to engage with the community and understand how it works because decisions taken this week suggest senior officials are uninformed about everyday life.
It strikes me the government needs a 'Red Team'. The job of the 'Red Team' is to look at an issue from all angles with a critical eye. The team must be people who didn't help draft or develop the policy. They should assess all its weaknesses and consequences.
'Red Teams' have a solid track record of overcoming the bias of in-house policymakers with group-think imposed by organisational culture. Plus we know that crowds — the public — are better at forecasting outcomes over 'individual experts'. Given Hong Kong's democratic deficit, such engagement is crucial.
So, come on Carrie form a 'Red Team' of ordinary citizens. Use construction site workers, waiters, retired people, office workers, postmen, nurses and shop keepers. Get them in a room with a facilitator, and ask them to critique the likely outcome of a policy change. No fancy papers or deliberations are needed, just plain common sense.
Then the government can avoid reversals with further damage to a faltering reputation. After all, these Covid-19 initiatives will only work with the people's support.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.