Explaining Hong Kong’s Coronavirus Response

Hong Kong people wearing surgical masks druing the COVID-19 pandemic
On May 11th, GIFT CEO and Founder Chandran Nair wrote It Takes A Virus To Reinstate the Statefor the Royal Society of Arts comment page.
The article discusses how positive responses to the coronavirus outbreak reveal the elements of strong governance, including in Hong Kong, writing:
Hong Kong shows the importance of trust in institutions, separate from the political administration. A strong public health response and compliance with social distancing measures have driven local transmission to near-zero. The city never went into full lockdown, and is likely to start repealing distancing measures over the next two weeks.
Despite the administration’s poor approval ratings, the successful response shows that the Hong Kong public continued to trust in the competence of the public health authorities. Deep divisions in the city’s politics did not affect how social distancing and public health measures were perceived, leading to universal adoption.
Hong Kong’s successful coronavirus response is especially interesting because it is a place one might assume would be more at risk. It has an open land border with Mainland China. It’s an international travel hub. It’s one of the world’s most densely populated places, with high usage of public transport. Yet despite all this, the city – as of now – appears to not just have the virus under control, but completely eliminated it.
This is why we wanted to delve deeper into Hong Kong’s coronavirus response, and exactly how it connects to the idea of strong governance.
It seems like a long time ago, but in early February, there were serious concerns about the city’s ability to handle the pandemic. Panic buying had led to shortages of masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. There was discontent around a perceived sluggishness to implement heath controls and travel restrictions. On February 9th, Bloomberg released an opinion piece that summarised the city’s mood: “Hong Kong Is Showing Symptoms of a Failed State
More seriously, there were concerns that the past year’s protests would limit the government’s ability to combat the pandemic. Several commentators blamed panic-buying on a lack of trust in the Hong Kong government’s ability to protect people.
Things look different in mid-May. There is hardly any local transmission in the city. Supply chains have been re-established. Social distancing regulations are starting to be repealed.
Hong Kong will still suffer significant economic pain – government estimates predict an economic contraction of 8% in Q1 2020, and an unemployment rate of around 6%. But compared to the dire economic data coming out of Western countries, Hong Kong looks like it might be emerging from this with its economy relatively intact.
So what explains Hong Kong’s success? Most outside commentary credits Hong Kong society rather than any specific government action. As Zeynep Tufecki writes in the Atlantic,
The secret sauce of Hong Kong’s response was its people … against their unpopular government, the city’s citizens acted swiftly, collectively, and efficiently, in effect saving themselves.
This only gets at a small part of the picture, however. Most criticisms of the government, including Tufecki’s piece, run out of specific examples of government mistakes after early March. Nor does it really get at why Hong Kong’s society was particularly effective at combatting the virus.

Competence and institutional trust

Hong Kong has largely let its public health experts set the tone and the direction of public health policy. The city’s public health department stepped up monitoring of flu-like symptoms in early January, several weeks before cases started breaking out of Wuhan. Experts are closely involved in advising the government, and are frequent guests on local media, often softly announcing the next stage of social distancing days before the official announcement.
This means that the city’s public health institutions are trusted to provide an accurate assessment of Hong Kong’s current situation, and that regulations are tailored to the current situation. There are no serious arguments that the city is significantly over- or under-counting its case numbers to suit some political agenda, in contrast to the United States, where hardly anyone trusts the official data (including President Donald Trump).
Social distancing in Hong Kong has not been polarised: both political camps accepted the need to reduce social contact. In contrast, the United States has seen the concept of social distancing become extremely polarised, most clearly shown by armed protestors demanding an end to lockdowns.
Both Hong Kong and the United States have deeply divided politics. But institutions in the United States have frayed, meaning there are few widely trusted sources of information. Hong Kong still has them, at least in the realm of public health.

Bold actions

The city also took strong social distancing actions, closing schools and public facilities early in the outbreak and ordering civil servants to work-from-home. Targeted regulations were also passed in response to quite small clusters: gyms, beauty salons, bars and karaoke parlours were closed upon confirmation of a handful of cases. Non-residents are barred from entering the city, and all incoming residents are tested upon arrival and must undergo fourteen days home-isolation.
The city has also implemented strict isolation and quarantine protocols. All confirmed cases are hospitalised regardless of symptom severity, or whether they have symptoms at all. Close contacts of confirmed cases are quarantined.
Hong Kong is one of a few places, alongside Mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand, that is trying to eliminate the virus (i.e. zero new confirmed cases). Even other “success” stories like Germany are not trying to go that far before discussing re-opening.

Social obligations

Different groups in Hong Kong society also have a strong sense of social obligation towards each other. Mask wearing is common, and stores, residences and office buildings now have hand sanitizer and temperature checks.
But there are also strong social feedback loops. Hong Kong people automatically reduced outings with family and friends. Organisers cancelled large events that could possibly transmit the virus. Many businesses followed the government’s recommendation to allow workers to work-from-home.
Many Hong Kong people were willing to sacrifice short-term enjoyment to both protect the rest of Hong Kong society, and to pursue a larger social objective of controlling the outbreak. In the end, it appears to have paid off: Hong Kong’s economy never fully closed, and now people are starting to venture outside to enjoy public spaces and social outings.
Hong Kong’s successful coronavirus response does not paper over the city’s broader issues with governance. The government largely avoids bold action on a whole range of political and economic issues, and its ties to vested interests have limited the scope of viable policy options. In addition, the city’s politics remain deeply divided, with much work to be done to foster reconciliation between the two political camps.
But the elements of strong governance can persist as political administrations stumble.