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As Hong Kong tries to keep its population safe and recover from the economic downturn caused by Covid-19, a replay of the havoc caused by last year’s protest movement is the last thing the city needs.
While the worst of the pandemic seems to be over for Hong Kong, rallies such as those held on Labour Day threaten the progress made so far against the virus. They also endanger the fragile unity that has held the city together.
Some seem to have quickly forgotten about the economic and social decline of Hong Kong during the protests, which continued for over six months before the coronavirus took hold.
The local health crisis is clearly starting to ease, prompting the city to loosen restrictions and measures that have kept many people at home since the Lunar New Year; Hong Kong has chalked up more than two weeks without any new local infections.
But the city isn’t out of the woods yet: some experts say restrictions should remain in place until 28 days, or two incubation periods, have passed with no new locally transmitted cases.
With some 1,040 confirmed Covid-19 cases and four deaths among its 7.5 million residents, Hong Kong has fared better than many of its neighbours in the containment of the virus. Even though it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, officials have managed to keep case numbers under control through social distancing, meticulous contact tracing, isolation orders and travel curbs.
Hong Kong was one of the first cities to be swept up in the crisis ” and one of the first to react swiftly and aggressively, drawing on hard-won lessons from the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003. Officials announced a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from the mainland.
After a spike in new infections in March, Hong Kong contained the second wave of the coronavirus by imposing additional stringent restrictions. Non-residents have been banned from entering, and those returning home are subject to mandatory quarantine. Arrivals must also submit to saliva tests to determine if they have been infected.
Many of these measures were drastic and caused considerable angst ” but they have worked. Importantly, Hong Kong never had to go into official lockdown. Rather, the authorities relied on the community to make efforts to contain the virus. It would have been a shame if the Labour Day rallies had undone all this hard work.
The government announced last Tuesday that social distancing rules would be relaxed, and that cinemas, fitness centres and gaming arcades would be allowed to reopen. So would bars, as long as they operate at half capacity. But social distancing is still necessary, and Hong Kong residents are still being told to stay at home as much as possible.
As David Hui Shu-cheong, a Chinese University respiratory disease expert who has been advising Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her government on Covid-19, said, “the potential risk to the community still exists”.
That’s why it is irresponsible of protest organisers to call for the resumption of civil unrest. Yet, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters heeded those calls on Labour Day, assembling near subway stations and in shopping malls in violation of social distancing rules that at the time limited gatherings to four people.
Riot police were called in to clear crowds who were singing and chanting slogans demanding more autonomy for Hong Kong. Officers used pepper spray; at least one protester was arrested.
Still, the Labour Day actions were small-scale ” especially considering that some pro-democracy unions and social media posts had called for citywide demonstrations. The Hong Kong authorities, citing public health concerns, had rejected applications by unions to hold the traditional march.
The activism that bubbled up on May 1 was less a popular protest, more an example of a fringe group ignoring social distancing rules. By congregating in public spaces, they were putting other residents in harm’s way; it only takes a small cluster of new infections to put Hong Kong at risk of another wave of Covid-19, like in Japan.
While the pandemic and social distancing rules have kept demonstrators at home for months, protest sentiment has remained visible, whether it was support for either pro-Beijing or pro-democracy businesses, or social media activism. But the surprise arrests of opposition veterans on April 18, and Beijing’s re-energised liaison office in Hong Kong have inflamed anger at China.
There is a real risk of anger spilling back onto the streets in the form of mass rallies ” something that must be avoided if Hong Kong is to preserve the delicate unity forged during the pandemic, and sustain its public health accomplishments.
With the city’s economy shrinking a record 8.9 per cent in the first quarter ” the third straight quarterly contraction and the longest contraction since the aftermath of the global financial crisis ” Hong Kong’s role as a thriving financial hub is already in the cross hairs.
But, as Carrie Lam noted, continued social unrest poses perhaps a bigger threat to the city’s future than the economic slump caused by the virus. “Hong Kong might be able to survive the economic cold winter,” she wrote on Facebook, “but I am worried that we could not be able to stand the continuous political devastation and resurgent violence.”
Pro-democracy activists have legitimate grievances. But they need to do the right and responsible thing for Hong Kong, and not endanger public health at a time when the pandemic is still a real threat. Hong Kong needs to stay united to overcome the Covid-19 crisis, and rebuild the economy after the pandemic.
Lin Nguyen is an analyst in Southeast Asian and South Asian regional security, focusing on economic and political developments
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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Europe emerges from confinement but Asia infections spike