Experts' advice not always helpful

Editorial | Mary Ma 31 Jul 2020

They say a picture's worth a thousand words.

So many hearts must have sunk after a photograph showing an old man kneeling to finish his lunch box on the first day of the dine-in ban was aired on local TV stations and carried prominently in most of the city's newspapers.

Sensational as it may be, the photograph was a powerful snapshot of the struggle that numerous workers had to go through on the first day of the ban.

Yesterday's policy U-turn to let restaurants reopen to customers for breakfast and lunch will unlikely shield Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung and those on his anti-pandemic team from fresh criticism.

Although from today the old man in the photograph will no longer need to kneel to eat his lunch, I have little doubt that the policy reversal will earn the government critical news headlines of a different kind.

Will "Government kneels after a chaotic start" be one of the punchy headlines we will be seeing this morning?

Such headlines certainly reflect irony, but they are not necessarily the best illustration of the truth.

Remember that, prior to the ill-conceived ban, some top medical scientists - including Ho Pak-leung of the University of Hong Kong and David Hui Shu-cheong of the Chinese University of Hong Kong - had been vocal in calling for a total ban on dining-in at restaurants.

At that time, the number of new cases began skyrocketing and few people, with the exception of some restaurant owners, opposed the idea.

In light of that, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor moved fast to convene a special meeting of the Executive Council to approve the total restaurant ban.

So it was very unfair for the scientists and the silent majority to criticize Lam or others because they accepted the suggestion of her medical advisers.

In hindsight, though, it was truly a bad decision and alarming that it was not thought through at all. Also incredibly eye-popping was the rush to open a number of community halls in all districts for workers to dine in.

The reality for the administration is that, as soon as the number of local infection cases rose to more than 100 cases a day, it immediately slid into a no-win situation.

No matter how hard it tries, it will never win the battle until a vaccine becomes available.

It is telling that, after days of investigation, the authorities were finally able to trace the source of the community outbreaks to a policy loophole that permitted sailors to change shifts in Hong Kong without having to go through proper quarantine.

But better late than never and, as the loophole was plugged, this wave of outbreaks will hopefully peak in the near future.

We have to be fair. Nobody has experienced such a nightmare situation before - although SARS may be a reference, it was not as infectious as Covid-19.

Each time a decision has been made in the fight against the pandemic, the SAR crossed the river a little further by feeling the stones. I have little doubt that more mistakes will be made as we continue to cross the river.

In the meantime, let us be show forbearance.

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