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Hong Kong’s Zero-Covid Disaster

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AP Photo/Vincent Yu

As Covid-19 reaches endemic status in much of the world, it almost seems absurd to even discuss the preposterous, unworkable, unsustainable “zero-Covid” strategies employed by countries like Australia, New Zealand, China, and others. After all, anyone with half a brain knew full well that a highly contagious respiratory virus like Covid-19 wasn’t going to be stopped and that efforts to stop it at all costs would lead to more human suffering than the virus could have ever inflicted, and yet highly intelligent people went full throttle with this strategy, wrecking their people and their economies in pursuit of a Quixotic goal that could never be attained.


And yet, we must discuss it, not just to dance on the grave of one of modern history’s most destructive policy choices, but also to highlight the lessons learned in order to help ensure it never, ever happens again. Enter Hong Kong, a densely populated, largely free-market economy that has been under Chinese control since 1997. When Covid hit in 2020, no place tried to hit Covid back as hard as Hong Kong did. In May 2020, Vox credited widespread voluntary masking for keeping the virus at bay, writing: “Almost as soon as the outbreak first began in the city, millions of residents started wearing masks in public. One local told the Los Angeles Times that the government didn’t have to say anything before 99 percent of the population put them on … Experts now say widespread mask usage appears to be a major reason, perhaps even the primary one, why the city hasn’t been devastated by the disease.”

Then, in July 2020, the crowded city of 7.5 million mandated masks indoors and in most outdoor public places, with fines up to HK$10,000 (~$1,300 USD) for violators. And they’re quite serious about it. Earlier this month, 83 people - including 17 who were simply smoking outside - were fined a total of HK$415,000 for violating the mandate. In a survey conducted in January 2021, 98 percent of Hong Kong residents reported compliance with the mask mandate, a statistic that completely aligns with strict governmental regulations as well as the much-ballyhooed Asian mask culture. 


All this brings to mind Vox’s coverage of a 2020 study out of Hong Kong and Europe which smugly assured us that if only “80 percent of a population can be persuaded to don masks, that would cut transmission levels to one-twelfth of what you'd have in a mask-less society.” Riiiight. Well, we all know how THAT turned out for everyone. Although for a time at least it did appear to be ‘working’ in places like Hong Kong. However, since human biology is what it is and viruses tend to, well, virus, that is no longer the case. Currently, as OMICRON cases fall in the United States and the western world, Hong Kong, despite its place at the top of the mask worship cult, is seeing a historic spike in cases, so much so that now hospitals are truly being overrun.

Still, Hong Kong’s leadership insists on blindly pursuing the same ‘zero-Covid’ strategy that didn’t work in the first place, no matter the costs. In an Associated Press article titled, “'No-COVID' policy drags on Hong Kong economy as cases surge,” Alice Fun and David Rising write: “Many fear the worst is yet to come with Hong Kong experiencing its most severe outbreak, and fret the authorities' determination to stick to mainland China’s ‘zero-tolerance’ strategy may prevent it from recovering as a financial and travel hub.”

Natixis senior economist Gary Ng is quoted in the piece as claiming that “zero-Covid can be reached,” (LOL, it can’t but nice try), but the uncertainty lies in “how long it can be maintained and what the cost is of maintaining it.” 


Indeed. Fun and Rising describe empty streets and airports, business closures, curfews, a declining economy, potential China-style lockdowns, mandatory testing, and forced-quarantines that have caused freedom-loving Hong Kongers to question whether it’s all worth it. Yet, they write, “Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam shows no sign of retreating from the ‘zero-COVID’ stance, saying Thursday that fighting the pandemic is her ‘paramount task’ and the city would ‘not be distracted by other things.’”

So it would seem Hong Kong’s leaders face a critical decision. On the one hand, they could continue to embrace ‘zero-Covid,’ thus wrecking their economy and what’s left of their freedoms in the process of pursuing an unattainable goal. The ‘reward,’ if you want to call it that, might be a reopened border with China, which insists on “zero Covid-19 cases” first. On the other, they could embrace reality, preserve their economy and their freedoms, let Covid rise and fall on its own, and be in exactly the same place they would be anyway. Because these mitigations - and the tyranny that goes with them - are worthless, and anyone with half a brain knows it. Whether Hong Kong’s leadership learns that fast enough to save their city remains to be seen.

Check out my appearance last week on Ian Miller’s podcast “UnMasked”!


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