Latest cases remind city it is too early to lower virus guard

The conclusion that lessons of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003 left Hong Kong better prepared for the coronavirus pandemic appears vindicated ” so far. Only seven Covid-19-related deaths, equivalent to one for every 1 million people, attests to that. But Sars did not prepare the city for rampant global contagion, with spiralling caseloads and worrying “second waves” of infection just when it had seemed safe to lower public health defences.
News of more local cases, snapping a three-week run without any, are a timely reminder that the city must not lower its guard except with the greatest caution. From Spain to America to Australia, many other places have paid a heavy price in new outbreaks for having relaxed anti-infection measures in an attempt to balance economic recovery with public health. As a result they have had to reimpose lockdowns, a setback that Hong Kong can ill-afford.
Officials should be well aware of the need for caution, with public health experts pointing to the dangers inherent in the expected return to the city in coming months of thousands of Hong Kong residents from countries with a higher Covid-19 risk. That is on top of the expected entry of thousands of domestic helpers and overseas university students. This has sparked warnings about a likely spike in demand for quarantine facilities, just as a major facility in Sha Tin ceases operations at the end of the month.
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With imported cases identified by the city’s testing and quarantine regime every day, we will probably have to learn to live with news of local cases from time to time. As Europe in particular is progressively opening up after lockdowns, Hong Kong is likely to open up more to outsiders, raising the likelihood of the arrival of more infected people and a greater need for quarantine facilities.
So long as gaps remain in understanding of the virus and how it operates, the blunt tool of lockdowns remains the most effective response to outbreaks of the disease. Questions that scientists are striving to answer fully still include how the virus is transmitted, whether someone can be reinfected, the effect if any of the weather, who does it kill and why, and blood clotting complications. There is therefore every reason for officials to lower defences very cautiously.
Recent relaxations of Hong Kong’s anti-infection regime have come ahead of the HK$10,000 government handout to every Hongkonger. The impulse to spend and socialise more at the cost of precautions such as face masks, hand hygiene and social distancing would be understandable. It is time to reflect on lessons for which Sars did not prepare us ” that we cannot think yet of lowering our guard or err enough on the side of caution, which includes quarantine readiness.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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