Hong Kong / May Cheng
Following the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong has been governed by the principle of “one country, two systems”. Under this system China promises to retain Hong Kong’s governmental and economic system under a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.
Hong Kong is a presidential limited democracy, led by chief executive Carrie Lam. With a population of 7.5 million, Hong Kong is regarded as one of the most important global financial centres with US$39,000 GDP per capita in 2018.
In 2019, Hong Kong’s total expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP was 5.8%, which was much lower than the average of high-income countries (12.5%).
Hong Kong has a mixed health care system, with 43 public hospitals and 12 private hospitals. Despite its financial status, its public health sector suffers from chronic underfunding. In 2019, Hong Kong’s total expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP was 5.8%, which was much lower than the average of high-income countries (12.5%).
Hospitals in Hong Kong are reportedly overloaded and understaffed. There are approximately 5.4 beds per 1000 people, which is slightly higher than the average of high income countries in 2013 (4.1). However, the densities of physicians and nurses of Hong Kong are marked at 1.96 and 8.3 per 1000 population, which are significantly lower than the average of high income countries (3.00 and 8.8 respectively).
Civil and political rights
Hong Kong declared a state of emergency on 25 January following its fifth confirmed coronavirus case. To contain the virus’ spread, the government implemented multiple containment strategies. This included compulsory closure of schools and public facilities, as well as requesting all its employee to work from home.
Despite the policies in place, the government has been heavily criticized for its slow and ineffective measures to control the spread of disease. On 28 January, the government announced suspension of high-speed-rail and ferry services, as well as a drastic reduction of flights connecting to China.
Despite its close proximity to Wuhan, the government has refused to close all the borders with the mainland. Instead it opted for a partial closure of borders. In response, hundreds of medical staff protested against the government’s refusal to implement sufficient preventative measures. It was argued that the approach is putting increasing stress on the already stretched hospital resources.
With a growing number of cases, the government tightened its regulations on all incoming travelers. Starting from 19 March, all individuals arriving in Hong Kong from any country are subjected to 14 days of compulsory home quarantine.
During quarantine individuals are given a monitoring wristband. Each monitoring wristband contains a unique QR code that is connected with the individual’s smartphone app. The app can map the individual’s home by processing the communication signals around the apartment and can alert officials if the individual attempts to violate the order.
Although a strict quarantine strategy can effectively reduce the risk of community outbreak, some are worried that the surveillance technology may be instrumentalised to trace individuals involved in Hong Kong’s anti-government protests, imposing a risk to citizens’ freedom of political belief and rights to protest.
In response, government officials have reassured the public that the app will not breach any privacy as it can only detect changes in the wearer’s location, but not the exact location.
Hong Kong has recently faced a second surge in coronavirus, with the majority of cases imported by students returning from overseas. To date, Hong Kong has reported 1040 confirmed cases and 4 deaths (last update 2 May 2020). Over the past three weeks, Hong Kong has reported a single-digit count in new cases daily, suggesting a low risk of community outbreak.
Regarding this public health success, a survey reveals that the majority of Hong Kong residents believe that community response, rather than government action, has been the key to containing the spread. Having suffered from SARS in 2003, Hong Kong citizens have become more prepared and responsive to public health interventions.
Since the beginning of the outbreak in January, the majority of the population have begun to wear face masks when going out and have avoided going to crowded places. In contrast, the authorities have been challenged for being “dominated by political consideration”. The Hong Kong government is accused of permitting China to escalate interference in Hong Kong’s political system.
It is believed that China is using the pandemic as an opportunity to exert its authority over Hong Kong, undermining the civil and political rights of Hong Kong residents.
It is believed that China is using the pandemic as an opportunity to exert its authority over Hong Kong, undermining the civil and political rights of Hong Kong residents. Specifically, the implementation of public health regulations has been exploited by the Hong Kong police to crack down on anti-government protesters.
On 31 March, a member of the Democratic Party claimed that he was stopped by a group of police while he was walking alone. The group of police accused him and four other unacquainted pedestrians of violating the new restriction that forbid gatherings of more than four people. He believes that the Hong Kong government is using the newly imposed measures to conceal the violation of political rights of Hong Kong citizens.
Additionally, 15 pro-democracy activists were arrested on charges of “illegal assembly” on 18 April. This occurred shortly after Beijing’s Liaison Office declared that it is not bound by Article 22 of the Basic Law, a regulation that restricts any department under the central government from commenting on or interfering in local affairs.
The liaison office also claimed that the “high degree of autonomy” promised under the Sino-British Joint Declaration “is not complete autonomy.” Rather, Hong Kong’s right to self-rule is “authorized by the central government.”
Between June and December 2019, over two million people in Hong Kong protested against the amendment of an “extradition bill.” The proposed law would allow transfers of fugitives from Hong Kong to mainland China, where they would face China’s deeply flawed judicial system.
Although the proposal has been formally withdrawn, widespread distrust and resentment towards the Chinese government remain unresolved. The concern is that China is taking advantage of the pandemic to reinforce its sovereignty over Hong Kong.
If China were to continue to take-over Hong Kong’s governance, during a time when all other countries are occupied with the coronavirus crisis, Hong Kong residents’ right to freedom of speech and political expression, as well as other civil liberties, would be seriously compromised.
Economic and social rights
Hong Kong’s employment rate has been severely affected by the pandemic. To prevent community outbreak, the Hong Kong government announced a list of public health measures on 27 March. This includes temporary closure of social venues such as cinema and gyms, prohibition of public gatherings of more than four people, and restriction of restaurant capacity to 50%.
On the following week, it announced a 14-day temporary closure of karaoke lounges, nightclubs, pubs and bars. The measures have imposed great pressures on retail stores and businesses, forcing many to be made redundant.
According to the Census and Statistics Department, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate has risen from 3.7% in January to 4.2% in March. Among all sectors, consumption and tourism have suffered the most from the pandemic.
To support the deteriorating economy, the Hong Kong government announced a $120 billion HKD relief package in February which promised to distribute $10,000 HKD to all permanent Hong Kong residents, aged 18 or above, in June and September this year.
In response to increasing unemployment, the government announced a further stimulus package of $137.5 billion HKD on 8 April. Eighty million is earmarked to subsidize the wages of over 1.5 million affected workers for six months.
The government plans to reduce rent in government properties by 75%, it will create 30,000 civil service jobs and internships, and liaise with transport corporations to reduce fares by 20% for half a year.
In addition, the government plans to reduce rent in government properties by 75%, it will create 30,000 civil service jobs and internships, and liaise with transport corporations to reduce fares by 20% for half a year.
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority has also promised to adjust its parameters to enable banks to lend more money to small and medium-sized business. To date, it has approved over 9,000 applications for relief loans or relaxations in repayment terms, accounting for over $57 billion HKD.
Businesses that are known to be supportive of the pro-democratic protests, the “yellow economy”, have been targeted consistently by police, further disrupting their business operations.
Despite the economic measures in place, many businesses still struggle amid the pandemic. In particular, businesses that are known to be supportive of the pro-democratic protests, the “yellow economy”, have been targeted consistently by police, further disrupting their business operations.
On 21 April, the government announced an extension on social distancing measures until 7 May. Although this may help to prevent further community outbreak, the extension will create more challenges for struggling businesses, specifically those within the yellow economic circle.
While local residents may benefit from the announced economic plans, the labour rights of many migrant domestic workers are compromised.
In an online survey conducted by the Asian Migrant Coordinating Body (AMCB), 11% to 14% of the 1124 respondents claimed that they were not given any masks or sanitizers from their employees and 50% reported increased workload.
In an online survey conducted by the Asian Migrant Coordinating Body (AMCB), 11% to 14% of the 1124 respondents claimed that they were not given any masks or sanitizers from their employees and 50% reported increased workload. In addition, many of them have been made redundant since the start of the outbreak and some have been forced to take unpaid sick leave.
The AMCB criticized the government over discrimination in its policy, and for neglecting the rights and needs of these vulnerable foreign workers. The inflexibility of its policies has violated the migrants’ work and pay rights, as well as their rights to access adequate health protection.
May Cheng is a medical student at Barts & The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, currently taking an intercalated Bsc in Global Public Health.