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Hong Kong’s Zero Covid deception There is nothing 'normal' about the draconian measures still in place

This is not normal (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

This is not normal (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)


October 6, 2021   4 mins

Imagine a world in which we live underground, each of us inhabiting our own small pod. Every need is provided for by an all-knowing machine. Travel is possible but discouraged, and for the most part we prefer to communicate remotely.

That was the premise of EM Forster’s science fiction novella The Machine Stops. Like all good sci-fi, the story can be read in multiple ways. But for me the key thing is what happens when the machine begins, slowly but ineluctably, to break down. Trivially to begin with — strange noises, the wrong music, smelly bath water — but then things begin to get more serious when the food starts to go off, and eventually the machine collapses and everyone is killed.

Yet until it’s too late, these flaws do not make people challenge the machine or wonder whether they might in fact be better off living on the surface of the earth. Although each flaw is resented at first, people just get used to them and begin to think them normal. “Time passed,” Forster wrote, “and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine”.

I confess to not having given the story much thought since I studied it back in school, decades ago. But it has clearly been lurking somewhere deep in my memory — because all it took for it to leap out from the subconscious was the right cue.

It turned out that the right cue was Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee. Professor Chan is Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health, with responsibility for many of its Covid restrictions, and so for those of us living here she is a figure of some import. She is firmly of the Safety First, Can’t Be Too Careful school of thought, to the point where she makes Chris Whitty look like an especially rabid anti-vaxxer.

This approach served Hong Kong well in the early days of the pandemic. Moving swiftly, and encouraged by most of the population who often urged the Government to take more drastic action, Hong Kong has managed to avoid both mass outbreaks and any large-scale full lockdowns of the sort seen in the UK. The Covid death toll here stands at just 213 — fewer than died from SARS — and there now hasn’t been a locally transmitted case for over a month.

Faced with the choice between remaining Asia’s World City or prioritising Our Friends in the North, it has now chosen the latter, aiming for a zero Covid policy and hoping that the border with the mainland will open again soon. This has resulted in some of the tightest travel restrictions in the world – 21 days in a quarantine hotel for someone from the UK, for example, even if fully vaccinated. In turn, this has had a disastrous impact on the vaccination programme. Vaccines are freely and easily available, but uptake has been slow, with the most vulnerable being the least likely to have been jabbed. The figure for the over-80s vaccinated is still below 20%: when you’ve got zero Covid, and if you don’t want to travel anywhere, why bother?

Yet however frustrating some of this might be — and however much we might wonder if this is sustainable — these are all legitimate policy choices. Given the mainland’s own zero Covid policy, and the importance of cross-border traffic, it’s difficult to see what Hong Kong could really do. Plus, however much pain this causes many foreigners and others with relatives overseas, there’s little doubt that it is popular within the wider population.

All this I can cope with, just about. But last month, Professor Chan claimed that in Hong Kong there is now “local normalcy” — and it was this that provoked my Forster flashback.

She was trying to argue that however grim the quarantine rules might be, life once here is fine and dandy. This might strike you as a bit “apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”, but you can at least see her point: if they allow normal life to continue, maybe it’s possible to justify very strict travel restrictions.

Yet life is clearly not normal in Hong Kong, even if we just confine ourselves to the restrictions brought about by Covid. Rather, Chan’s claim is one of the best examples of the ratchet effect in public policy I’ve seen for ages.

Let’s just take just the things that affect me on an almost daily basis. Mask wearing is compulsory in public, for everyone, even when outdoors. There are limits on group gatherings, with still no more than four people allowed to gather outdoors (although unlike in the UK, say, there has never been any limits on private gatherings). Table sittings in restaurants are also restricted, usually to four, although some places are allowed to go really wild up to six, depending on the extent of staff vaccinations. Tracking entry and exit via an app into any public building or restaurant is compulsory.

Most schools are still not back to full-day provision, even though pupils are now in their sixth term of disrupted schooling, and even when at school there are innumerable restrictions on what they can do. Meanwhile, at home, there is routine compulsory testing of areas or groups. These can involve locking down whole blocks with no warning — so-called “ambushes” — even with the possibility of breaking into your home if you don’t answer the door.

And hovering above it all is the ever-present threat of being carted off to a government quarantine centre. Should one of your close contacts tests positive, there’s none of the would-you-mind-awfully-staying-at-home-please attitude here. Instead, you get picked up, with almost no notice, and chucked in a room in a quarantine centre for up to three weeks, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If you actually have Covid, you are taken into hospital. There is little care for family separation, as with the children taken away from their parents — or the breastfeeding mother separated from her four month old baby, despite the child being unable to take formula milk. (That one was solved only because women donated spare pumped breast milk).

It is common to see praise in the West for how countries like Hong Kong have managed track, trace, and isolate programmes, without being aware of what the reality of the isolate bit often means. We have a bag ready, by the front door, packed with emergency provisions, just in case the guys and gals in Hazmat suits come knocking.

These examples are illustrative, not exhaustive. Everyone in Hong Kong could list others. And remember: these are the restrictions currently in place with the Covid stats down to zero.

Just as when Forster’s machine starts to break down, some of this might be considered fairly trivial, but some of it is not. Some of it may even be justified in the short or medium term. But none of it is normal, and we should not let politicians — in Hong Kong or elsewhere — ever tell us otherwise.


Philip Cowley is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. His books include volumes on each of the last three elections.

philipjcowley

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

To this day I’m unable to imagine what will happen if a virus like the Spanish flu appears. It was at least five times as deadly as covid and mainly killed young, healthy people–people who make society run.
If jurisdictions like Hong Kong and Australia implement such extreme measures for covid what will they do when a much more deadly virus appears? Sadly, the public’s tolerance for lockdowns has proved to be exceptionally high. Heaven help us if a really nasty virus arrives.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think the people have become indoctrinated, even the author who is praising the first response to Covid of HK as praiseworthy. He is only concerned with the idiotic measures because they are so disruptive to his normal life but doesn’t question the lethality of Covid respiratory disease itself. We are not in danger from the disease, we are in danger from ourselves and deserve to suffer for our willingness to comply.
Unfortunately some of us who see Covid for what it is are sadly watching in horror what humans are doing to themselves and consequently it will ripple it’s effect on to us.
If I lived there I’d be with the 80% who don’t have to travel so don’t care about the government’s agenda. I used to live in HK but I am so glad I don’t anymore.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I have only heard one explanation of this and it was from Prof Sunetra Gupta. Her view was that there had been very little flu about for years before so the youngest had not acquired a natural immunity and hence more young people died. Unlike the claims of today, natural immunity works and vaccines are not the only way to achieve immunity as Fauci is claiming.
When covid first appeared the media were claiming that covid was more dangerous than the Spanish flu and the deaths supported that. The media failed to take into account the difference in population which confirmed it was not true. The death rate in 2020 was the 12th lowest on record. Where is the covid pandemic? In the minds of politicians and the media.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Vaccines are the safest way to achieve herd immunity. Would you suggest covid parties?

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

Just because something is the safest is it also the best? If people would like to have covid parties (or just parties) why not?

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

Then maybe we should have eradicated smallpox by infecting everyone!

How about this evidence that vaccinations are more effective than getting covid https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/s0806-vaccination-protection.html

Last edited 2 years ago by rodney foy
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

The Covid vaccine is not a sterilising vaccine (as is the smallpox vaccine) and it did not go through long term testing with all groupings. Please don’t just pretend that all vaccines are equal.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

They went through massive testing programmes, and have since been shown to be safe in real life, especially compared with getting covid, and very effective.

Why does it have to be sterilising to be useful?

Last edited 2 years ago by rodney foy
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

Who told you the vaccines were safe? Your government? The Guardian? The pharmaceutical industry?

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

“Just because something is the safest is it also the best?”

Um
 all other things being equal
 yes?

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Yes, I agree.

I detect a high degree of vaccination resistance here from otherwise intelligent people.

Why not go with the evidence from epidemiologists who spend their lives researching and understanding this stuff, rather than online gossip-mongers?

Every time I say things like this I get a lot of down ticks

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

Simply because some people would die, or get long covid. Dangerous, and not advisable

Peter Rigg
Peter Rigg
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

And the restrictions aren’t? Did you miss the extaordinary rise in non COVID diseases?

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

There is solid evidence that the current non-immunity vaccines have postponed herd immunity.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

I haven’t come across that, and I’ve widely read a lot of stuff. A quick search hasn’t yielded anything. Would you be able to to provide a link?

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Tolerance has appeared to be exceptionally high for this one

not sure it ever will be the case for the next one.
As to Australia, look at how they behave during the Spanish flue

exactly the same as today.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

As to Australia, look at how they behave during the Spanish flue

exactly the same as today.
Interesting point. I hadn’t researched Australia’s response to the Spanish flu. I guess if you’re an island-continent there will always be the temptation to just shut the borders indefinitely.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

As it will.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

This is what happens when humans start prioritising abstract utopian ideas – such as zero covid, or the glory of the Party, or absolute equality for everyone, or whatever – over everyday human life. Pursuing them requires systematic lying to sustain a narrative that people believe in sufficiently to acquiesce to their basic human needs and rights being overridden without much or any protest. Everyone ultimately loses, including those pushing the politicised lies because as those lies become increasingly exposed to reality they need more and more fear- or guilt-based propaganda to keep them standing up, and the lies take on their own logic and power over those speaking them, as they get more absurd and extreme until no-one can quite remember what the ostensible purpose of the lie was in the first place. Inevitably they eventually collapse, on the heads of those propagating them and those who have suffered them, alike (and there is a lot of cross-membership of those two groups). Think of the apartheid regime in South Africa, for example. They sustained their set of lies for decades, but they came crashing down eventually. De Clerk himself knew it was lies but even as president he felt powerless to change the narrative.

The CCP have got it coming and they know it. Those in Western governments who continue – despite all of the evidence – to mimic the lying liars in Beijing & HK and oppress their people with similar measures must be aware that China’s “Covid response” had nothing to do with the management of novel virus that mysteriously emerged all of a sudden one fine autumn day from a bat cave, and everything to do with the CCP’s zealous pursuit of maintaining and extending their worldly power at literally all costs and with zero concern for ethics or who they hurt in the process. Our so-called leaders know they have been gulled and the cowards cannot accept the public humiliation of owning up to it. So they go on spinning the lies, and serving the CCP’s purpose.

So it was perhaps a very clever strategic play by the CCP in the short to medium term, but in the longer term it will come crashing down on them. Perhaps they are gambling that, before that happens, they’ll have found a way (as Huxley feared) to pharmacologically or digitally manipulate their own and other countries’ populations so that they become incapable of discerning reality from falsehood, or if they are still able to do that, they’re physically unable to revolt.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I agree.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

“This is what happens when humans start prioritising abstract utopian ideas – such as zero covid, or the glory of the Party, or absolute equality for everyone, or whatever”

Or zero immigration. I might be going for the downtick record

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

On the contrary. Are you under the impression that all those with a worldview consistent with that which I set out above are of the reactionary right? If so I believe you are very much mistaken, my friend. Have an uptick 🙂

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Thanks, very much appreciated. Have an uptick from me .

I’m trying very hard not to be leftist, centrist, or rightist on any issue.

The CCP may well be behaving as you say. I don’t know enough to judge. It also occurred to me that they be ultra cautious. If the delta virus gets loose on their largely unvaccinated population, the consequences would be grave. But then why haven’t they mandated vaccination?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

All I could wonder when reading this, was when it was going to be mentioned that Covid (and draconian measures) came along at a perfect time to quash the insurrection that was playing out in Hong Kong.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

You would have to be crazy to suggest that the release arrival of COVID-19 happened at an opportune time for the Chinese government.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Haha

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

You would also have been crazy to suggest that the arrival of Covid-19 happened at the perfect moment to allow the world’s economy to crash, just in time for Trump’s most significant policy success to be squashed, and therefore his re-election hopes. (I am referring to the large increases in employment and income by most minority groups in the U.S. Can’t have dependent voters suddenly becoming free and prosperous!)

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Stunning co-incidence, no?

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago

The main issue is the way we look at infectious illness forgetting that 1) they are normal and will never go away, 2)one has to be susceptible to be able to develop any ‘infectious’ illness 3) the severity of he illness depends as much on the patient (population) as the infectious agent.
Unless medicine starts to research patient’s resilience and how to achieve health, and use the existing (ignored) techniques to achieve this, we shall remain obsessed about infections and will never resolve antibiotic resistance issues, ever , and silly and inhuman measures like many of the covid measures, will remain ‘popular’ with some of the population. maybe we want to live in a sterile world….

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

Human evolution has seen many viruses come and go. Amazing machinery, poorly understood, easily nourished by repeated challenges daily

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

It has? What amazing machinery do you know has ever come about by blind, random, chance over eons? (the statistical probability of which has been estimated at 10tothepower240ish..or something impossible like that (numbers were never my strong suit)). What poorly understood amazing machinery do you know that is touted as immutable scientific fact? Ah, yes – and humans have evolved from/into what, exactly?

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

How are they ever going to open up again with so little herd immunity?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

Thousands will die, the CCP will ban all reporting of the fact thousands have died and instead release figures showing that Hong Kong doesn’t even have the disease within its borders

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

Yes, people should have taken the opportunity to get vaccinated. Either they couldn’t be bothered, or they don’t trust the vaccine.

The same thing seems to have happened in other countries that achieved close to zero covid, and now they have a big problem

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago

Having to login every few days even when the app says I’m logged in is just s minor pain in the ass compared to the restrictions in Hong Kong!

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

What app?

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

The UnHerd app for mobile devices! It shows that you’re logged in as a user, but when you go to the comments it exits the app to show the comments over the web browser! That’s when you have to login every now and then to access the comments. The comments aren’t being loaded into the app! So what’s the point of the app? You can just as well use the Webbrowser to read the articles!

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

I’m using a cell phone and I’m not having that problem. I have had it on other web sites. In my case, it seems to be random. This is not at all helpful, is it?

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  L Walker

In my case, it seems to be random.
Same here. Happens once a week on average.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yes, but it’s a pain in the ass!

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

The only bright side to all this is that the great 20th Century science fiction works are making a strong comeback, thanks to real life finally catching up. I just finished Philip K. d**k’s Ubik and have been introduced to Stanislaw Lem. Wonderful stuff.

James Watson
James Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

“d**k’s” should be D**k’s. Avoiding the moderators shouldn’t lead to sloppy capitalization

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  James Watson

If Philip and Cressida both have the same last name, why can’t we spell it out? Richard Nixon had a nickname.that apparently can’t be used on this site. It was a perfectly good nickname for decades until the blue noses got back in power.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  James Watson

Agreed. In fact I had written out the name wholly and with a capitalized D. My guess is that the moderator algorithm not only dispensed with my vulgarity, but sought fit to correct what it assumed was a case of errant capitalisation.
Prudish AI with a penchant for grammar-nazism (or should that be Nazism?) – that’s how far we’ve come!

Keith Dudleston
Keith Dudleston
2 years ago

During late summer there are usually just over 9,000 deaths in England and Wales each week.
Over the last three weeks reported by the ONS there have been between 1000 and 2000 “excess deaths” above this baseline.
Only about half of these excess deaths were recorded as “COVID deaths”.
Less than 5% of these “COVID deaths” were in vaccinated people.
About 5% of NHS beds are occupied by those suffering from COVID; another 5% are empty.

Gerard McGlynn
Gerard McGlynn
2 years ago

I read The machine stops for ‘O’ some years before Philip I suspect. I saw the warning quite quickly. I wonder if it is still taught now. As a matter of interest I seem to remember it being dramatized for ,I think, the BBC in the mid 60’s.

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Gerard McGlynn

I read it too, back in the early ’50’s, along with Brave New World, 1984, and my favorite author, Isaac Asimov. Second favorite was Heinlein.

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago

Ivermectin for humans. Will end Covid. Will not be used because all those “experts” will be shown to have been wrong.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Has a JG Ballard feel.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B