Test data lifts virus optimism

Editorial | Mary Ma 15 Sep 2020

The SAR's first - and probably the last - community-wide testing for Covid-19 closed yesterday with more than 1.7 million people taking part.

Can it be counted as a success? It's a matter of perspective. As the whole exercise was purely voluntary, everyone would have had their own reasons for taking - or not taking - the test.

There were repeated appeals by government officials - from Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to Civil Service Secretary Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who was in charge of the program - for citizens to take the tests.

For some who are anti-government, those appeals in themselves might have been reason enough not to take part. Others might just have an aversion to anything to do with doctors.

Even as Nip declared the mainland-supported testing program a resounding success, no doubt the administration had hoped for greater participation.

But the results provide valuable data that will help point the way forward.

So in terms of the program's success, it comes down to the old question of whether a glass is half full or half empty.

But the fact that about 76 percent of the population opted out showed they may have various concerns about the scheme -concerns that Nip must identify and address.

The number may have fallen short of expectations but there is no denying the community-wide testing was useful in the sense that it produced crucial information for epidemiologists to gain a better understanding of the pandemic situation here.

Our scientists at universities have been trying to assess the situation with the help of mathematical models. Although these tools have yielded useful information, they are theoretical and limited by design.

Although only 24 percent of the population was tested, they formed the largest random sample so far to produce empirical data for our scientists to compare the results with those reached via the mathematical models.

According to the Centre for Health Protection, 26 of the 1.7 million people tested were infected. That's a very small ratio, showing there is more room for the SAR to normalize life as much as possible.

Nip and his colleagues should now draw up a proper plan based on the findings to allow the city to keep moving forward with a greater degree of economic and social activities.

That is not to infer we should let our guards down, but the information collected over the past two weeks has provided fresh evidence to shift the point of balance a little further on the relatively normal side.

Chinese University of Hong Kong infectious disease specialist David Hui Shu-cheong was correct in pointing out that Covid-19 infections did not end with the closing of the testing scheme.

The cost of the testing should not be a concern. Incidentally, ours was minimal compared with a British plan that reportedly would cost 100 billion (about HK$1 trillion) to set up if testing was to be increased to 10 million tests a day.

It is not time for complacency to set in. Instead, the government should use this opportunity to update its contingency plan to include an agreement with Guangdong so that the province can dispatch reinforcements as it just did if Hong Kong has another major outbreak in the winter.

In the meantime, the SAR should remain watchful at the border for probable cases.

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