The political cost of the coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong

The inadequate actions of the authorities in the face of a major health emergency could cause more social upheaval.

Hiong Kong Corvirus protest Reuters
People march to protest against the government's plan to set up a quarantine site close to their community amid the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, in Hong Kong, China Feb 2, 2020 [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

On 23 January, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam – whose personal brand back home had been battered by months of civil unrest – held a reception for global business and political leaders gathered in Davos. As they were served dim sum and cocktails and offered chocolate gold coins, Lam told them that “Hong Kong is open for business”.

She reassured them that, despite the continuing protests and economic downturn, the city would emerge stronger from a crisis sparked by a now withdrawn extradition bill and sustained by anger over police brutality. Lam also said she was “cautiously confident” the city was ready to deal with a new SARS-like illness that originated in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province, and of which there were then two confirmed cases in Hong Kong.

Just over a week later, her confidence looks misplaced as thousands of health workers kick off a week of unprecedented strike action over her government’s refusal to fully close the border with mainland China to contain the epidemic. The disease, dubbed 2019 novel Coronavirus, has spread to 27 countries with more than 17,000 confirmed cases and over 360 dead.

In Hong Kong, health authorities have confirmed 17 cases and reported the first death caused by the virus on Tuesday. The virus has done what eight months of protests failed to do. Local banks closed almost 30 percent of their branches until further notice, civil servants have been asked to work from home, and schools are to remain closed until at least early March.

As many restaurants and retailers report fewer customers, the city’s supermarkets and pharmacies are most definitely open for business. Driven by uncertainty and deepening distrust in the government, residents are queueing up to stockpile face masks, hand sanitisers, disinfectants and food.

Hong Kong is no stranger to fear and panic over a new mystery illness. In 2003, the territory scrambled to respond to SARS, which spread from neighbouring Guangdong province amid initial Chinese government secrecy and inaction. A total of 1,750 people were infected in Hong Kong and 286 died.

Even before the current coronavirus outbreak, Hongkongers commonly wore surgical masks when ill and carried plastic bottles of hand sanitiser – habits that were ingrained during the days of SARS.

SARS left other legacies in Hong Kong, the repercussions of which have a direct bearing on the situation we find ourselves in now. Discontent over how the government handled the crisis and the economic recession induced by the epidemic combined with widespread anger over a proposal to enact draconian national security laws brought half a million people onto the streets on July 1, 2003. 

It was the first mass protest of this scale to take place in the city since the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997, and it took Beijing by surprise. The central government sent teams of fact-finders to Hong Kong and set in motion a gradual change in its Hong Kong policy that spelled the beginning of the end of the hands-off approach of the early post-handover years. Its representative office in Hong Kong began to play a more proactive role in local affairs.

Beijing also rolled out a number of measures to boost Hong Kong’s post-SARS economy in a trade pact known as the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, or CEPA. The deal paved the way for closer economic integration between Hong Kong and the mainland and for far greater numbers of mainland tourists to visit Hong Kong under the Individual Visitor Scheme. In 2002, there were 6.8 million tourist arrivals from the mainland, by 2018 they had increased almost tenfold to 51 million.

That number has prompted many in Hong Kong, including leading public health experts, to call for a halt to visitors coming from the mainland as the virus continues to spread from Wuhan to other provinces across China. Initially, the government only imposed an entry ban – announced late on January 25 – on residents of Hubei province or people who had visited Wuhan in the last 14 days.

It was only after a huge public outcry, including from front-line medical workers, that on January 28 the government announced the closing of six minor border crossings, which accounted for approximately 8 percent of cross-border traffic in 2018.

And it did not go unnoticed that in announcing this and several other measures to reduce the flow of people between Hong Kong and the mainland, Lam stressed she had received central government approval and thanked mainland ministries for their cooperation. It was another reminder that increasingly, Hong Kong’s leaders must take their orders from Beijing.

Some commentators have suggested Hong Kong needs to remain open to mainland residents so that the well-connected can continue to travel abroad as overseas countries halt flights from mainland China.

On Monday, after the first day of strike action by public hospital workers, Lam announced that all land crossings with the mainland will be closed except for the joint checkpoint at Shenzhen Bay and the Guangdong-Zhuhai-Macau-Hong Kong Bridge. The airport would also remain open for flights to and from the mainland. 

Given that the airport and the Shenzhen Bay checkpoint account for the majority of crossings made, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to placate irate Hongkongers. On social media, some likened the government’s measures to slowly squeezing toothpaste out of a tube.

Lam’s refusal to completely close the border is not the only source of dissatisfaction. The government has also rejected calls to drop an appeal against a court ruling that its ban on the wearing of face masks – enacted due to the protests – is unconstitutional. This is despite medical advice to wear masks in public places to prevent the potential spread of coronavirus.

It is certainly ironic that many of the pro-government supporters and political parties who were demanding a mask ban earlier are now clamouring for and handing out face masks. 

And in some neighbourhoods, residents across the political divide have joined forces to oppose the creation of coronavirus quarantine centres near their homes. While there may be public health arguments for such centres, the breakdown of trust in the government and a perceived lack of consultation further fuels suspicion and anger. 

Organisers estimated that close to 2 million people marched against an extradition bill that they saw as an existential threat to Hong Kong’s promised high degree of autonomy and special status. Many more may consider the current outbreak to be a potential matter of life and death.

The pro-government forces in Hong Kong must be acutely aware of this as the city faces territory-wide elections for its legislature later this year. They were given a historic hiding in last November’s District Council polls.

While the scale of the pro-democracy camp’s victory will be hard to repeat given the more complicated voting system in September’s polls, pro-establishment parties know their support for government policies may come at a cost. There are signs that anger over the government’s handling of the outbreak has united ordinary people across the political spectrum and achieved Carrie Lam’s 2017 election slogan of “We Connect”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.