I don’t usually consider myself a member of the outrage brigade. Indeed, much of what I preach and do is very far from the expression of outrage. But there are instances when I can’t but bring myself to empathise with those outraged by the sheer ineptitude, inconsistency, and debauchery of the powers that be… Nicole Kidman’s surprise visit – and her exemption from quarantine – certainly counts amongst them.
For those who have been less tuned to the latest developments in our wonderful, little city, there’s been much drama surrounding the Australian actress’ arrival in the city. Nothing to do with the actress, of course – ‘tis instead to do with the fact that despite her arriving from Australia, a medium-risk Group B country, she was exempt from the “compulsory quarantine for 21 days in a designated quarantine hotel”. Indeed, the star has engaged in elaborate saunters downtown, strolling on the streets of Central and Admiralty, before shooting epic scenes (very epic) in Mongkok and beyond.
This is no fault of Nicole’s – or, indeed, the production company’s. The discretionary powers over whether quarantine is granted rest with the administration. And even then – exemptions are most understandable; emergencies, personal or otherwise, could well be reasonable grounds for exemptions, provided that the public has had a say in determining when and where such exemptions are granted. Alternatively, should the restrictions be lifted for some, perhaps they ought to be lifted for more, for all, as opposed to the select few.
The problem lies, however, with the selective and asymmetrical application of the rules. This is troubling, for several reasons. The normative argument is intuitive and need not be rehashed – we aren’t Nicole Kidmans, we “Plebs” are by no means as privileged or powerful or wealthy or important as Nicole, yet the privileges of having quarantine waived should not be determined on the arbitrary basis of whom we are, how powerful or connected we happen to be, or how commercially valuable we are. The plea for equality somewhat misses the point, in any case, given that it is somewhat reasonable for the administration to grant exceptions should there be substantial commercial interests at stakes – provided that public health measures and requirements are otherwise fully complied with at large.
Yet it does not strike us – at least the uninformed audience, such as yours truly – that the shooting of a film about privileged expatriates residing in Hong Kong, in 2021, could be of such substantial economic value (what value? Tourism? Not much of that’s left given the perennial lockdown) that the government must make way to accommodate Nicole’s schedule. In any case, what’s the difference between Kidman’s shoot, and the equally, if not more urgent, commercial and business engagements that afflict citizens who cannot and should not put up with the 21 days of quarantine? Surely, their interests matter, too.
The administration ought to be consistent – not necessarily in the end-treatment of individuals (for that is at best faux-equality – levelling down is neither what we need, nor what I’m suggesting here), but in how it interprets, accounts for, and justifies exemptions or the lack thereof; we need clearly communicated, publicly agreeable, and/or scientifically vetted decision-making processes. To paraphrase David Hui, ‘tis rather biarre, if not downright absurd, that Kidman is granted an exemption – when viruses know no identities, and respect no boundaries. Either the government sticks to their guns, and applies the metric of “urgency” and “commercial interests” fairly and evenly across the board; we reopen up, the city drops the nigh-impossible mission of pursuing 0 cases, and all is well. Or it should be the case that neither Kidman, nor the thousands of travellers returning to their home, are given a free pass over quarantine conditions.
Most fundamentally, a greater spectre haunts the state of public health administration in Hong Kong today – that is, the spectre of mistrust and disillusionment with the government. I do feel for many in the government, including civil servants, senior bureaucrats, and leading politicians – yet it ultimately rests with them, and not the people, to make the government’s directives understandable and understood by all in the city. If there indeed is a positive case for Kidman to spend (fewer than) 21 days shooting the movie on the streets in the Flower Market, then so be it – but the public deserve to know and appreciate this fact. Elsewise, should the public be kept in the perennial dark, it’d be rather difficult to justify and warrant these decisions, in a way that pacifies and addresses the anxieties and resentment of all.
The curious case of Nicole Kidman serves as an exemplary reminder of how governance has been and is in fact, in many ways, better in the Mainland. The municipal and provincial governments in China leave little room for imagination – administrators are precise, open, and promptly respond to medical crises. Inept officials are replaced and sacked, as they should be, as the entirety of the country mobilises substantial efforts and resources in ensuring the elimination of COVID-19. On this front, amongst others, Hong Kong really ought to take a leaf or two from its very own country. It may well be surprised by how much it could gain.