March 11, 2022 - 3:00pm

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is currently experiencing the highest Covid death rate, per capita, of anywhere in the world, at any time during the pandemic. Until Christmas, it had seen just over 200 deaths caused by Covid; the figure now stands at just shy of 3,500 and it’s going up fast. Today brought another 196. (For a rough UK equivalent, multiply by ten.) The local press, which until recently was lauding Hong Kong as a model of how to do it, is now running why-oh-why pieces about why things have gone so wrong.

On one level, the answer is pretty simple: the vaccination programme was a failure. Overall take-up was OK, if a bit sluggish, but take up among the elderly was dismal. Even when overall rates hit respectable levels, the vaccination rate among the over 80s was still under 30%. There’s no Captain Hindsight here. I first described the vaccine programme in print as a policy failure a year ago, and I wasn’t the only one.  

That was fine while Covid could be kept out at the border, or any outbreaks quickly detected and suppressed. But once Omicron broke through, it soon overwhelmed the system. It is now ripping through residential care homes, killing the unvaccinated at appalling rates. About half of today’s deaths were in care homes. More than half were entirely unvaccinated.

Hong Kong is providing a natural experiment into quite how lethal Omicron can be when it is let loose among a vulnerable population — and it turns out it can be plenty lethal enough.

We can’t ignore people’s own responsibility. Most of those now getting seriously ill or dying actively chose not to get vaccinated. But there were also local quack doctors, urging caution on the slightest of pretexts, while local media played up the risks associated with the vaccine, giving overdue prominence every time someone got a bit dizzy after being injected. 

And then there’s the Hong Kong government.

True, it encouraged vaccination. But there was never any sense of urgency, and the policy involved little beyond exhortation. Hong Kong had months in late-2021 when it was effectively Covid-free which could have been used on an intensive vaccination drive, to prepare for the inevitable and to scenario. The things the government is now doing — vaccine passports or systematic outreach to care homes — are now all much too late. Plus, throughout this period so much focus went on border controls and keeping cases at zero that the implicit message was that there was no great rush to get vaccinated. The result has been some of the most avoidable Covid deaths of all, anywhere in the world.

There was a belief that the Chinese way of dealing with this was superior to the West. Others had reckless social Darwinism, while here they valued life. Hubris can be cruel sometimes.

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