Aug 27, 2020 05:53 PM

Paul Chan: Hong Kong’s Covid-19 Lessons

People enter a subway station in Hong Kong on Aug. 14.
People enter a subway station in Hong Kong on Aug. 14.

Paul Chan is financial secretary of the Hong Kong government. This article was first published on his official blog, titled “Joining the testing programme for everyone.”

Since August, the number of daily new Covid-19 cases has come down from its peak at the end of July (with a record high of 149 cases) to the recent level of some 20 to 30 cases. However, unlike the second wave that was mainly brought about by imported cases of returnees, most cases in the third wave were infected in the community.

For those confirmed cases, about 35% cannot be traced back to a known source of infection, and the cases were widely distributed geographically and across sectors. Even with the implementation of stringent social distancing measures, different clusters of infection still arise in the community. The number of confirmed cases in some clusters, such as hostels used by foreign domestic helpers and port facilities, are still increasing.

But even if the epidemic situation has shown improvement, we cannot conclude that the current outbreak has come to an end before we can effectively break the hidden chain of infection in the community. On this, the strategy of “early identification, early isolation and early treatment” is the key to curbing the epidemic.

To identify asymptomatic affected persons through screening and testing, we could arrange quarantine and suitable medical treatment for them so as to safeguard their health, ensure the safety of their families, friends, colleagues as well as the community, and break the chain of infection.

With support from the central government and the efforts of the special administrative region’s government, we have greatly enhanced our testing capacity and set up additional facilities for quarantine and treatment. The number of beds will increase from about 3,000 currently to more than 5,000 by the end of this year, facilitating the isolation and treatment of affected persons.

On screening and testing, apart from strengthening the free testing service for targeted groups with higher risk, we are also going to launch the Universal Community Testing Programme for citizens to join on a voluntary basis with the assistance of the central government.

The Universal Community Testing Programme, which will run for two weeks, will commence Tuesday to provide one-off virus testing services free-of-charge to all Hong Kong citizens. There will be an online booking system to prevent crowding of people at testing centers.

We understand that some people may be reluctant to join the program due to different reasons, but for the sake of their health and that of their families and friends, and for the overall interest of the society, I sincerely appeal to you all for your participation. With more people taking part in the testing program, there is a higher chance that we can reduce the risk of community infection. If every one of us can take one more step, we will find the way to win the battle against the virus, and go back to our daily lives and restart our economy.

It is noteworthy that among the recently confirmed cases in Hong Kong, the fatality rate is noticeably higher for the elderly. We have to break the hidden chain of infection to remove the threat posed to them. Only by doing this will we have the chance to resume our daily activities and travel, and help hard-hit enterprises and workers to get out of the woods.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already dealt a severe blow to human life and the global economy. Resurgence of the epidemic is common around the world whenever restriction measures are lifted, reflecting the difficulties in striking a right balance between controlling the epidemic and helping the economy.

Based on our experience over the past half a year and so, our strategy at this stage is to adopt a two-pronged approach: to control the epidemic and support the economy at the same time. Although the most imminent task right now is to contain the epidemic and break the hidden chain of infection, we also need to consider how to strengthen the cooperation and consensus among the community, so that our “suppress and lift” strategy can be implemented more flexibly.

Facing the “new normal” of coexisting with Covid-19, we should aim at controlling the epidemic in a fast and effective way with flexible response to any resurgence, and at the same time allowing economic activities to take place at a manageable risk level, so that our anti-epidemic measures would not drag down the economy. Different bureaus have been actively engaging with their respective stakeholders with a view to working out a solution.

Although social distancing measures could effectively curb the spread of the virus, we understand that in a longer run, it is impractical to restrict people from going outside and restrict the operation of selected businesses, as they will pose negative impacts on people’s lives in different aspects, and deal a severe blow to the economy.

While the global fight against Covid-19 continues, we have to work out a suitable way forward for Hong Kong to break the chain of infection, control the epidemic, and support the economy, so that daily lives, travel, and people’s income can be resumed to the largest extent. Let us set aside differences and speculations, and join the Universal Community Testing Programme together to help Hong Kong contain the epidemic as soon as possible.

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