Brian Wong

Virus outbreak: HK civil society can save itself–and China too

The novel coronavirus outbreak caught Carrie Lam's administration at a time that plausibly could not have been worse, with fresh wounds left by months of violent civilian-police clashes and unprecedented levels of mistrust towards the government.

The government's initial responses had been suboptimal – from sluggishness over questions of medical quarantine and border control, to the seeming confusion and nonchalance over runs on daily necessities and shortages in supplies, to vitriolic disputes between the city's leaders and the public medical workforce.

There were undeniably aspects in media coverage that were deliberately amplified to score political points – for instance, in inflaming xenophobic sentiments towards mainland Chinese visitors and fueling anti-government antagonism over quarantine sites. The coverage also neglects that the administration's recent efforts at securing regular supplies and local production of more masks and in aiding the repatriation of Hongkongers stranded in Wuhan have also been partially redeeming.

Yet Hong Kong's woes cannot be understated. The city's medical staff are facing unprecedented pressure given bed-space shortages, uncertainty over the city's fraught relations with the central government is at an all-time high, and the lack of transparency over core information – such as quarantine lists – has spurred paranoia.

It is high time that civil society steps in, setting aside political differences; whether one is "yellow" or "blue" should have little to do with whether one deserves medical aid and support.

Shortage of medical supplies and daily necessities – the latter induced by panic runs and scaremongering, and the former given the global difficulty of procuring supplies – is of particular concern. Given the extensive opportunistic hoarding by private actors, medical staff in the public sector are struggling with the limited and unstable supply of masks and other protective gear.

The government does not look good when the police are seen as receiving more safety supplies per capita at the expense of frontline medical workers – reality may be one thing, perception is another.

Medical staff tasked with the most high-risk activities – including nurses and caretakers – currently have the least say within the hierarchical public healthcare system.

Outside hospital walls, the 200,000-odd residents in caged homes and subdivided flats – the poorest of the poor in the vastly unequal city – are ill-equipped for the ongoing crisis. Lacking both political know-how and economic capital, they cannot afford basic sanitation hand-gel and rudimentary masks, let alone hygiene supplies that are very much needed to help them navigate their dire living conditions.

It is high time for philanthropists and high-net-worth individuals to pool capital in bulk-purchasing medical supplies across the world and redistributing them to both the highly at-risk medical personnel and those genuinely vulnerable as they live under the city's poverty line. More importantly, senior bureaucrats must set aside their ego and work proactively with non-governmental organizations and district-based agencies in distributing the resources to immobile or disenfranchised populations, such as senior citizens who are living alone, the disabled, and the chronically ill.

Yet there is more to fighting the outbreak than mere supplies. Misinformation and mal-information abound. For this, the government must take responsibility – not only has its primary response to citizens' concerns been both patronizing and dismissive; it has also, unlike its Singaporean counterpart, failed to work with potential allies among popular media in quashing rumors and fake news.

Civil society ought to do better – rather than perpetuating panic and disseminating scaremongering information, civilian media must commit to fact-checking and dispelling unsubstantiated myths.

It is censorious to limit freedom of speech that expresses a dissenting opinion; it is not censorship for media outlets to call out each other for exaggeration and speculation that instigate unhelpful mistrust of medical authorities. The ongoing smearing of the World Health Organization and the Hospital Authority by local media outlets only renders more difficult governmental collaboration with international organizations and private actors in handling the crisis. Even if we ought not to trust the government, we should defer to the judgments of actual medical experts and doctors – as opposed to impulsively subscribing to online rumors.

Ultimately, the Hong Kong administration must recognize that civil society is not its enemy. If it could successfully contain the outbreak within its borders, Hong Kong's medical supplies, prior expertise, and institutional track record can be channeled to helping the mainland – whether it be in enforcing greater accountability for local and provincial officials, or in informing the central government on how the outbreak could be managed as the country restores its economic operations. Political correctness cannot and should not take precedence over human lives.

On the other hand, the city's civil society ought to do more in aiding its northern counterpart – migration and movement across the border are inevitable, and it would be futile to think that Hong Kong could stand intact if large swathes in the mainland were to succumb to the illness.

Most importantly, through the relief and support it provides at critical times like these, the city could make a particularly convincing case for the continued maintenance of "one country, two systems" – Hong Kong's autonomy and institutional independence from the mainland are assets for China at large, as opposed to defects that must be limited.

Carrie Lam's administration has made enough mistakes as it is. So let us, as a collective, not continue down that path. We can, and should do better.



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