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Tuesday, March 24, 2020, 10:55
HK should strictly quarantine international arrivals
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, March 24, 2020, 10:55 By Ho Lok-sang

With a wave of returnees from overseas, comprising in particular students who have been studying overseas, many fear that the novel coronavirus will spread further in the community. Professor Gabriel Leung of the University of Hong Kong has warned that the next few weeks will be especially crucial, and that Hong Kong is now at the most dangerous point since the outbreak began in January.

The vast majority of this wave of arrivals from overseas are Hongkongers. For example, on Thursday, 11,923 were Hong Kong people out of the 13,100-plus arrivals. The numbers show that shutting down non-Hongkonger arrivals will not help much.

What is required, instead, is a stricter quarantine. What transpired last week is that home quarantine is just not reliable, even with the electronic tracker wristbands that are supposed to alert authorities to irregular activities. Unfortunately, even with the threat of a fine and a jail term, there is no guarantee that everyone quarantined at home will not leave their homes and mingle with people in the community. Even with a 99 percent compliance rate, the threat of the epidemic spreading in the community is still not acceptable because international arrivals will be in the tens of thousands per day. As Leung says, even a few patients spreading the disease could lead to large numbers of local clusters. This is exactly what happened in South Korea.

What we need to do is not close down our businesses, which will be lethal in other ways. Instead, we need stricter quarantines to ensure we contain the epidemic

Some experts have proposed that businesses that involve larger gatherings of people perhaps should close down or at least cut down their service hours temporarily, saying that we just cannot afford risking a large outbreak in the community.

I disagree.

Businesses are already closing down in droves. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to 3.7 percent in the three months to February, up from 3.4 percent in the November-to-January period. This is the highest in more than nine years, while the underemployment rate of 1.5 percent also increased to a five-year high. Total employment dropped by 34,400 to 3,768,800. The unemployment rate would have been 4 percent if the labor force had not shrunken by 22,500 to 3,903,000. At the last count, 134,100 people were unemployed, while another 59,100 were underemployed.

What we need to do is not close down our businesses, which will be lethal in other ways. Instead, we need stricter quarantines to ensure we contain the epidemic. If we successfully contain the epidemic, and if, as I recommended in my last column here, we have no more local infections for up to 28 days, we will know that our city is safe. Businesses can go back to normal, and all government services can go back to normal.

We have to remind ourselves that bankruptcies and unemployment can kill too. A loose approach to quarantines and a tight hand on our businesses is wrong. We may end up killing more, and sacrificing our economic future, as business failures often involve a loss of economic capital and human capital — which could ruin our long-term competitiveness.

During our last deflationary and recessionary period, Hong Kong’s suicide rate rose from 12.1 in 1997 to 18.8 per 100,000 in 2003. This implies 450 additional suicides in a year. Remember, too, that people may fall into depression, lose their immunity, and die from other causes.

To me, closing down our businesses is not an option. The only option that will give Hong Kong a chance of revival is immediately imposing a strictly enforced quarantine for international arrivals.

At a press conference, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said she had reservations about using hotels as quarantine sites. She said the air conditioning systems, the carpets, and objections from people in the neighborhood were considerations that might mean hotels would not work.

Perhaps some hotels will not work. But many others may. Why not defer to our experts in epidemiology to assess potential target hotels and to suggest possible improvements that might make them work?

We also have plenty of empty schools and empty sites. If we have the political will and the leadership, we should convince people in the neighborhood that we cannot afford shutting down our businesses very long.

I know the mainland has been using hotels as quarantine sites, and that it has successfully contained local outbreaks. Recent cases on the mainland are all imported. I just learned that on the mainland, factories are now humming, and life is gradually returning to normal. We should learn from the mainland.

Some Hong Kong business executives have expressed the wish that Hong Kong end the quarantine requirement for business travelers who have business on the mainland. I support their request. In fact, there are already many “safe” cities on the mainland, having been free of local infections for well over 14 days. There is no reason to require quarantine for arrivals from these safe, COVID-19-free cities.

Let us face the choices: strictly enforcing quarantines and revitalizing our economy and our community, or going loose on quarantines, and shutting down more and more of our businesses for good.

I am sure if the implications of the options are clearly communicated to Hongkongers, they would opt for the former.

The author is senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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