Hong Kong is intent on keeping its 7.5 million residents in and blocking almost everyone else out. In doing so, it’s moving further away from a Covid-19 exit strategy.
As most of the world opens up, Hong Kong’s quarantine policy has made it close to impossible for residents to leave and reenter. Foreign employees, multinational companies and the locals that work for them are losing patience and hope. Over the weekend, a top lobbying group wrote to the financial secretary that the city’s approach risks its status as a business center.
A quick recap of the policy: Most inbound travelers have to quarantine, self-funded, at designated hotels for up to three weeks. If you’re coming from countries classified as high-risk, including the U.S. and U.K., it doesn’t matter much if you’re vaccinated. The government has a running list of available rooms that it updates every few weeks, but securing one has become the latest frustration in the labyrinthine process of entering the city.
I recently tried to help book a quarantine room for friends who are moving to Hong Kong from within the region. They would have liked to be here next month, but nothing suitable was showing up online and they couldn’t get accommodation until February. Of the more than 87,000 hotel rooms in the city, the government currently has designated only 11,500 of them for quarantine purposes. Most acceptable ones, sufficient for a family of five, are full. Many hotels don’t answer the phone; some are taking bookings months in advance; others aren’t taking them at all. Several are working through their growing wait lists from previous months, built up before they were officially included on the government-approved list. The actual availability ends up being even less than what’s published.
Designated Quarantine Hotel scheme
Hong Kong set up a Designated Quarantine Hotel, or DQH, Scheme last December to facilitate prolonged quarantining. As part of that program, the government calls for applications from hotels and guesthouses with valid licenses to participate. In the latest round, the government issued letters to around 2,000 such facilities to enlist, according to a spokesperson for the Food and Health Bureau. “We have received 45 applications and 40 hotels were selected as DQHs to join the sixth cycle to provide about 11,500 rooms of various types and rates for selection by arrivals in Hong Kong from places other than Mainland and Macao.” Officials note that more hotel rooms have been made available compared with the previous round and that they “will continue to closely monitor the demand for hotel rooms and consider the need for releasing some 1,200 reserve rooms in individual DQHs if necessary.” Government data show there are 2,005 such licensed places in Hong Kong.
Despite facing the reality of three-week confinement — some in rooms as small as 10 square meters (107.6 square feet) — friends have cried tears of happiness upon receiving confirmation for their quarantine stay. Others are willing to be stuck with infants (who will start eating solids in quarantine), toddlers (who will learn to walk within those walls) and young children (who will likely end up maxing out their yearly screen-time quota in those weeks alone). All this as the price to pay to go home and see family. Most residents haven’t left Hong Kong for the better part of two years because the policy has remained so restrictive.
Mental ordeal with quarantine
Once you’ve crossed the mental hurdle of being stuck in a hotel room and shelled out thousands of dollars to do so, facing difficulty in booking a room is almost an insult. Expecting individuals to endure this process much longer is unrealistic — for families, it’s just ridiculous. A quick scroll through Hong Kong quarantine Facebook groups will reveal plenty of horror stories. Over the weekend, a traveler in 14-day quarantine – with epilepsy and a nut allergy — was found on the floor of his room having an epileptic seizure when staff went in for a routine PCR Covid-19 test because the hotel didn’t prepare him the proper meal, according to local media.
The willingness to put people through these hoops and ration out hotel rooms seems to suggest the territory will go to great lengths to preserve its Zero Covid strategy. In an interview last month, the health secretary told me that while Hong Kong assesses several risks, it’s ultimately intent on stamping out cases. And since most of the ones the city does see (about a handful a day) are imported, the government must control its borders.
It’s increasingly difficult to find a clear, logical justification for such a strategy, which at this point is defensive, backward-looking and rooted in fear. As officials talk about the virus beyond Hong Kong’s borders and its priority to open up to the mainland, China is warning of growing outbreaks across several provinces, despite its similarly stringent border policies.
In its current form, the approach makes one wonder why there is such a deep sense of fear in Hong Kong. Is it that officials are concerned the health system can’t handle another wave? Or is it that the territory will end up with a horrendous public relations problem if deaths rise as borders open, because it hasn’t been able to get its vulnerable population vaccinated? (The elderly, or those aged 65 and above, account for around 18% of the total population.)
If officials are going to stick to their guns, then the quarantine system must be vastly improved. A few places to start: more suitable hotel rooms, as well as more family-friendly facilities that let in the fresh air. That includes following the World Health Organization’s quarantine guidelines of “adequately ventilated rooms with large quantities of fresh and clean outdoor air.” Subsidizing rates would also help alleviate the burden. For the limited, large area accommodation — approximately 106 square meters, luxurious by Hong Kong standards — rates are around HKD50,000 a night ($6,432).
For a government with deep pockets, these are small asks. All it needs now is conviction.—Bloomberg
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