January 20, 2022 - 2:00pm

However badly today goes for you, at least you’re not a hamster in Hong Kong.

A handful of Covid cases were linked to a pet shop in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong island; all of the “small mammals” in that shop — and its store — are now off to the great hamster wheel in the sky. That alone put paid to around 900 hamsters, 150 rabbits, and 40 chinchillas. The English language version of the government’s press release contained a delightful typo, saying that the animals would be treated in a “humane manor”, which sounds more fun than what we all know really awaits them.

In addition, the import of hamsters has been banned and all other pet shops in Hong Kong are currently shut, until their pets have been tested. The government are contact tracing anyone who visited the Causeway Bay shop, while anyone who bought a hamster since late-December in any shop is being asked to bring it in for testing, followed, even if negative, by culling. It’s a bad way to lose a Christmas present. Anyone whose pet tests positive will be carted off to the government quarantine centre for three weeks, which must be quite an incentive for a bit of hamstercide on the sly. Local media is full of children tearfully saying farewell to their pets, while social media is packed with memes mocking the government.

To many in the West, this will sound like an absurd overreaction. But it’s what happens when your goal is zero Covid. Policy ceases to be about proportionality — about balancing costs, risks, and benefits. It becomes about absolutes. If the goal is zero, you cannot take chances.

In many ways, the pet massacre is just the logical development of the other policies currently in place. There are total flight bans from multiple countries. A full three weeks in hotel quarantine for almost every visitor. Compulsory hospitalisation for weeks for anyone found to have Covid, even if asymptomatic, while anyone they’ve been in contact with gets chucked into quarantine. Ambush style lockdowns of buildings to carry out compulsory testing. Children separated from their parents, and held in isolation. 

Restaurants are currently shut in the evenings. Bars completely. Most sport or other leisure activities are shuttered. And today the government announced it was stopping face-to-face teaching in secondary schools. Primaries went about a week ago. This is the third school shut down since Covid began. Two years into Covid, and no one here can see a way forward. The goal is to reopen the border with the mainland, a goal which requires zero cases, but they don’t seem to have an exit plan either. Even if this current wave can be contained, and things slowly open up again, another will follow. Rinse and repeat, just with fewer rodents.

Maybe the hamsters are the lucky ones.

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