Hong Kong's response to coronavirus is another blow to its liberty

Carrie Lam's refusal to shut down Hong Kong's border with China proves she has lost touch with what her society wants and needs

Joshua Wong,Amon Yiu
Tuesday 11 February 2020 15:26
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Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam has announced emergency measures and has halted visits to mainland China

When the coronavirus outbreak hit several cities in China, it also dealt another blow to Hong Kong‘s autonomy. Fear and anxiety are growing as cases in China have more than tripled over the past week.

The adjacent province of Guangdong has become the second hardest-hit after Hubei province and, in a bid to fend off the spread in communities, Hongkongers are calling for the closure of the border with China that tens of thousands of commuters use every day.

The call is actually supported by the public and experts. According to the latest poll, 80% of the population support sealing the borders entirely. The idea is also backed by several Hong Kong doctors and microbiologists, including Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading expert in infectious diseases who discovered the agent causing the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, in the face of mounting calls for a full shutdown, Carrie Lam has repeatedly dismissed the public demands, just like how she handles the public call for an independent investigation into police and a full political reforms.

Lam’s decision is even disputed by transport and public policy experts and other pro-government parties. They argued that Lam’s decision is political, rather than based on any feasibility concern. As the lockdown is dismissed, the government finds itself trapped in another legitimacy crisis. The crisis begs the question as to whether the city can still maintain its distinction with China.

The situation is worse than the 2003 Sars outbreak – the city’s medical supplies are drying up this time. One of the reasons for this is connected to the Hong Kong democracy movement over the past seven months. Since it began, the Beijing government has classified all types of mask products as “sensitive items”, including surgical masks.

All mask imports from China are now barred from entering Hong Kong. Logistic companies and e-commerce platforms simply reject orders to the city. Even more ridiculously, the government has filed appeals against the court’s ruling of the ban on face masks as unconstitutional early last month.

Running out of masks, Hongkongers raided supermarkets and pharmacies for all protective equipment. Older men camped out outside pharmacies through chilly winter nights in line for masks. Some are even forced to reuse old masks several times. Worse still, our mask stocks for medical workers can only last for one month.

No matter how robust our health care system is, all health workers are fighting an endless war with limited weapons, so long as our borders remain open. That is the reason why medical workers have to go on strikes to call for a complete shutdown.

Unfortunately, Carrie Lam has cancelled the meetings with medics and refused to talk. Instead, the government put in place the quarantine order, which is criticised for being toothless. Though mandatory, the measure heavily relies on the self-discipline of quarantined people and is merely enforced by random checks and phone calls. Worse still, quarantine centres are patrolled by untrained teenage scouts.

With limited protection gear and an endless influx of travellers from China, it is a matter of time before the virus turns into a full-blown community outbreak. As Hong Kong simply tightens, but not fully closes its border, more travel bans on Hong Kong seem inevitable. In fact, companies like American Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Australia and South African Airways have already cut flights to Hong Kong, while Taiwan and the Philippines have restricted travellers from Hong Kong.

If Hong Kong fails to seal its borders to stem the spread, the city is doomed to be sealed by the rest of the world. The economic loss will be immense for this Asian financial hub. Therefore, I urge Carrie Lam to answer the people’s call and close our border crossings.

Arrogant, unanswerable to the people, and resistant to take experts’ advice, Lam has wholly lost touch with what the society wants and needs. According to a recent poll, only 11% of the city’s population feels satisfied with the government’s response to the outbreak. With rage and grievance boiling over across the political spectrum, people realise the opaqueness and undemocratic nature of this Beijing-handpicked leader.

Whether the Hong Kong government can maintain its autonomy in internal affairs like border controls and handling of the pandemic is questionable. Unlike the anti-extradition protests last year, it threatens not only the city’s freedoms but also our community safety.

Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor, has now died. The truth teller’s death sparked widespread anger online. However, Xi Jingping’s rigid regime has not taken lessons from the explosive outbreak and is clamping down on the coronavirus coverage.

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“We want freedom of speech” was trending on social media channels with millions of views before it was quickly deleted. While posts quoting the Chinese national anthem’s first line – “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves” – were censored.

Underneath President Xi’s personality cult and his rigid controls, we are the oppressed. Throughout the outbreak, we bear witness to the powerlessness of power. This new wave of anger and discontent will fuel further protests. The coronavirus outbreak is not the end, but a new beginning of our fight for democracy, freedoms and autonomy. After all, this is a battle against China’s authoritarian oppression.

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