"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Well done Carrie, you’ve retained freedoms, although we are about to sacrifice the weak and old on the altar of that conceit."
Having dodged the bullet for the last two years, Hong Kong is about to feel the full force of a Covid tsunami. That said, it is the mild but highly transmissible Omicron variant that has breached our defences. As I noted two weeks ago, Omicron is no follower of government policy. Instead, viruses tend to go about their business directed by the cold hand of Darwinism.
Since that post, we've gone from a blip in Covid cases to a full-blown crisis with dreadful images of old folks parked outside overstretched hospitals awaiting a bed. At the coldest time of the year, in Asia's World City, this is a disgrace.
Meanwhile, following policy, younger people with minor symptoms get accepted into care when they can safely isolate themselves at home. So, as a top epidemiologist, Professor Benjamin Cowling from the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health asserts, a change in approach must come soon.
Then again, we could have avoided much of this self-created crisis if the government had proved robust enough to vaccinate the old. There is a solid and compelling case for such action, yet Chief Executive Carrie Lam dithered. She put a misplaced concern over ‘human rights' before the safety of the elderly in what some have criticised as 'social Darwinism.' Well done Carrie, you’ve retained freedoms, although we are about to sacrifice the weak and old on the altar of that conceit.
Besides, weeks ago, the Secretary for Health and Welfare, Sophia Chan, assured us that the government had plans ready for the worst-case scenario. That is untrue, given the scenes, we are witnessing. Yet even today, health officials sought to play down matters by suggesting they have enough resources.
This sounds like lunacy and begs the question, why then are people waiting outside in the cold and wind for treatment? Tonight there are reports of an old lady with Covid waiting five nights outside a hospital to get a bed. By the simple step of commandeering an indoor sports hall to triage and then shuttle patients into the hospital, we'd have demonstrated a modicum of care.
These massive failures haven't gone unnoticed in Beijing. President Xi intervened to issue an extraordinary statement that pundits conclude is an admonishment of Lam. In short, he's telling her to get her finger out and coordinate a comprehensive response.
If the media reports are correct, the government plans to test the 7.5 million population. Some reports suggest this exercise is to repeat three times.
Lam commented that it should be possible to test 300,000 a day, which by my calculations will take around 26 days to cover everyone. Logistically such a scheme is possible given the resources the Mainland will commit to helping a floundering Hong Kong. All the same, there will be consequences that need acknowledging, and some are adverse.
Although details are sketchy, the proposal is to bring together people, by HKID batch numbers, to mix with strangers at testing centres. Those who test positive will proceed to quarantine.
For starters, this takes people out of their 'bubbles' and exposes them to others with no relationship other than a similar identity card number. What could go wrong? Well, we know that Omicron is highly transmissible, so is this approach seeding a potential massive cluster?
And there's more. I doubt that the government has thought through the realities of what hundreds of thousands of people queuing will look like. Will these persons carry suitcases and bags on the chance they test positive and get carted off to a quarantine centre? Again, the optics are terrible, as Prague 1941 comes to mind as people await their fate.
Finding accommodation for the hundreds of thousands who may need quarantine has prompted a scramble to build capacity by using hotels. Documenting, feeding and screening all these people is no easy exercise. Perhaps the nearest comparison is the massive effort to shelter the Vietnamese refugees, who started arriving in the later 1970s. We got through that by displacing responsibility for decisions to the lowest level possible while ensuring oversight of the whole exercise.
I'm not sure Lam's leadership style fits the crisis she faces, given her centralised and inflexible style. Moreover, as I've noted elsewhere, she appears distant from the reality on the ground.
I'm sure other matters will crop up. For example, doing HKID batch-based checks may help clear-up the crime rate. Everyone with an outstanding bench warrant could be picked up at the test centre (if negative), then be headed to a different type of quarantine isolation, or 'holding cell', as the police call it.
So in case anyone is listening, how about different options; post ten test kits per address with pre-paid return envelopes. Or deploy the rapid test kits linked to the Leave Home Safe app.
Lastly, who in the government is gaming these scenarios. It makes more sense to use a team of people to think through the possible outcomes rather than leak a potential policy to the Press and wait for the public response. The mentality of "well, the public didn't act upset, so it must be ok" is not a sound basis for planning policy!
Hong Kong's image has taken a dreadful battering in recent years. But unfortunately, some of that damage is self-inflicted and could be avoided with clarity of thought.
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.