Pro-democracy protests in the midst of the pandemic. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

March 5, 2021   5 mins

She had barely rolled down her sleeve after receiving her Covid vaccination, when Carrie Lam started declaring her gratitude to the government in Beijing. Lam, Hong Kong’s friendless Chief Executive, does this kind of thing a lot. When talking about the virus, she stresses the benevolence of her masters, who claim to have suppressed Covid at home and are spreading their efforts far and wide to suppress it elsewhere. China is clearly hoping to extinguish the memory of where this pandemic came from in the first place.

There has been much political opportunism all over the world in response to the pandemic. In Hong Kong, though, the prioritisation of politics over medicine has been breathtaking. From the earliest stages of the outbreak, the government here, reeling and battered after the surge of unprecedented pro-democracy protests in 2019, seized upon the spread of Covid as a major tool for quelling dissent. In February 2020, a secret report sent by the Hong Kong government to its bosses in Beijing was leaked. It allegedly contained statements by Lam describing the outbreak of the coronavirus as a “rare opportunity to reverse the situation”, her administration having been “attacked on all fronts” during the protests. She added that with the central government’s help the pandemic could be the means of ending the unrest.

The affairs of the two governments are generally conducted inside a black box that reliably emits denials of unauthorised reports. But the Hong Kong administration did not deny this story. At the time, I was writing a book about the protests and wanted to know more. Generally those close to the heart of government are loath to criticise but, astonishingly, two people who had been involved at the highest level in discussions about combating the virus volunteered to tell me how disgusted they were with the leadership’s cynicism in using it as an opportunity to clear the streets of protestors.

While the government had been very slow off the mark in securing personal protective equipment, it had been very quick to introduce social distancing measures that effectively banned public assembly. Given that the virus was primarily spreading from the Mainland, it seemed rather obvious that the border should be closed.But the government resolutely refused to do so. That February, medical staff went on strike, demanding border closure — and were castigated by Lam and others for “politicising” the pandemic.Within days of the strike, the government was forced to backtrack as new infections were unambiguously linked to arrivals from the Mainland. But those who took part in the industrial action continue to be harassed and punished.

Meanwhile, on the Mainland, President Xi Jinping proclaimed an ongoing “people’s war” against Covid-19. Last March, he made a triumphal visit to Wuhan and strongly suggested that the battle had been won. Still, China’s international reputation was getting a battering as criticism mounted over its lack of transparency, with dire consequences regarding the spread of the virus. Hong Kong government officials, who are now highly proficient in mimicking the revived Mao-era speech of officials in Beijing, joined in the national effort of decrying international criticism, while stressing China’s enormous achievements in getting things under control. What terrified the local administration was any hint that it could be seen to be criticising Beijing.

And so, while other jurisdictions were busy evacuating their citizens from Wuhan, the Hong Kong government sat on its hands. It waited until March 2020 before starting an evacuation programme, after most other jurisdictions had got their people out. They claimed that logistical problems were the cause of the delay — a strange assertion, given other places managed to rapidly overcome such problems, despite being much further away from China. But during the pandemic, as always, local officials have spent more time looking over their shoulders trying to gauge the response of their masters in Beijing than paying attention to what people at home are saying.

In fact, it was the people who got down to the serious of business of keeping the virus at bay. They turned out in their millions to protest against the government before the start of the pandemic, and in doing so learned to be self-reliant. Local initiatives secured face mask supplies; while officials were mainly focusing on using social distancing to prevent protest gatherings, members of the public proactively made social distancing part of their daily lives. People kept away from crowded areas; retailers and restaurateurs installed safer service methods. Many remembered the 2003/4 SARS outbreak, which inflicted a far heavier death toll than Covid-19 in Hong Kong and provided an unforgettable lesson in what is necessary to contain the spread of a disease.

But Covid-19 is refusing to go away. In February this year, when Lam delivered her annual work report to President Xi by video link, he responded by implicitly criticising Hong Kong for a lack of vigour in combating the outbreak. On the Mainland, people had been herded into quarantine centres and large lockdowns were meticulously enforced. Measures were taken at great speed, while Beijing proclaimed the virtues of authoritarian government, which tolerates no discussion and gets rapid results.

Clearly, Lam was shaken. Days after her encounter with the President, she ordered officials to copy the way things were done across the border. The government launched dusk guerrilla raids for the first time on (mainly poor) districts, which involved hundreds of policemen running around in front of television cameras, ejecting people from buildings to take tests, forcing businesses to close with immediate effect and trapping overnight anyone unfortunate enough to be living in these areas or to have wandered in there at the time. All this activity made for some very dramatic video footage, but the net result was to unearth practically no one with the virus.

Meanwhile, the quarantine regime — already in place for incoming travellers, who were sent directly from the airport to quarantine hotels, long before places like Britain cottoned on to this obvious plan — was stepped up. Anyone who had been in contact with someone who’d tested positive for the virus, no matter how slight the level of contact, was detained.

Lamentably, I have first-hand experience of this measure. After a television hairstylist with whom I’d had two minutes of contact tested positive, I was issued with a court order to check into a mass quarantine centre with all the charm of a wannabe gulag. The words hairspray were mentioned as likely to have provoked contagion. For the record, neither I nor the 20 or so other people who had been in the make-up room were infected. But we were promptly relocated for 14 days.

Conditions inside were dire. All meals consisted of tepid food served in either brown or beige slush. The rooms, with barely a sliver of natural light, offered inmates a choice of gloom or harsh fluorescent lighting. But comfort was not expected. More startling was the extraordinary regime of regulations, which kept inmates confined to their rooms 24 hours a day, and a myriad of obstacles that made it very hard to receive anything from the outside.

Still, the government is very proud of this 3,500-room centre, in a remote location, next to a failing (and, by the by, nationalised) Disneyland. The centre opened in July, officials praising its construction in “a race against time”. It was gradually expanded, providing a palpable demonstration of official vigour, likely to play well with masters in Beijing.

Much less speedy has been Hong Kong’s vaccine roll-out. It belatedly got going last month, the delay largely explained by the fact that politics had, yet again, taken precedence over science. Hong Kong’s leaders were determined to demonstrate their patriotism by ensuring that a Chinese vaccine had priority. Others had been sourced, but they could not be administered until the Sinovac programme was underway. Even now, the supply of non-Chinese vaccines is very limited.

The Sinovac deployment had been postponed following repeated failures to complete the third phase trials. But, by the end of last month, the delay was starting to get embarrassing, so the vaccine was shipped in despite not having completed the verification process. Sinovac has the lowest efficacy rate of any vaccine in use, ranging from around 50 to 60%. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Chinese vaccine made it possible for Ms Lam to sit before the cameras to have the first jab. She took the opportunity to castigate critics for ‘politicising’ the vaccination programme. She does not do irony.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong based writer, broadcaster and journalist. He is the author of Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship, to be released by Hurst Publishers on 25 March.