Sophia Chan Siu-chee, secretary for food and health of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, addresses a ceremony to welcome the arrival of the mainland nucleic acid testing team at Metropark Hotel Kowloon in Hong Kong, on Sept 3, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, a new variant of the novel coronavirus was identified and is now spreading in the UK; while a slightly different one has been found in South Africa. Last week Hong Kong recorded the first case of the new variant on a person from the UK. Even Japan and South Korea, which successfully contained the spread of COVID-19 early on, are now overwhelmed by a resurgence of the pandemic. The situation is so bad Japan has temporarily closed its doors on all non-resident arrivals from overseas.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong is dealing with a fourth wave of the pandemic, which has forced the SAR government to elevate countermeasures to the same level as for the third wave for over a month but not as effectively so far. Infectious disease experts such as David Hui Shu-cheong and Yuen Kwok-yong, who advise the government on anti-COVID matters, have reckoned publicly that more stringent measures like suspension of retail activities and curfews may need to be imposed.

There has been mounting criticism of the government over its anti-epidemic efforts, or lack of them, especially the absence of a clear goal in fighting COVID-19.

Actually, the SAR government does have a goal. which is to keep the number of confirmed cases each day at single-digit levels for starters and zero eventually. Before Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor paid a duty visit to Beijing in November last year, she asked the central authorities to resume personnel exchange between the mainland and Hong Kong to levels before the pandemic broke out but was refused. That is why she included in the 2021 Policy Address the goal of zero COVID infections for a reasonably long period of time.

Realistically speaking, it is impossible for Hong Kong to “achieve zero infections” as long as the global pandemic continues, because new cases will inevitably occur when Hong Kong reopens its doors to overseas visitors. The success of the war on COVID-19 depends on but does not end with achieving “zero infections”. It must be accompanied by an exhaustive contact-tracing and quarantine mechanism ever ready to kick in as soon as new positive test results come out. The typical scenario would be “zero infections” most of the time, with a new case or two every now and then. Call it the new normal in the post-pandemic era if you will.

The central government’s expectations for Hong Kong are quite clear. When Han Zheng, vice-premier of the State Council and head of the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macao Affairs, met with Lam on Nov 6, he emphasized the need to strictly implement regular pandemic control at all times as well as better coordinate efforts to keep COVID-19 under effective control and economic recovery in progress.” Suffice to say these will not be possible without achieving “zero infections” first.

The reason why Hong Kong has not been able to achieve “zero infections” has a lot to do with its porous contact-tracing regime.

Lam and her governing team should come to realize that the current anti-epidemic measures are no longer effective in controlling the highly infectious disease. Many Hong Kong residents are experiencing the so-called “anti-epidemic fatigue”. Even after the SAR government raised the fine to HK$5,000 ($645) each time someone violates social-distancing rules, there has been no shortage of offenders on the streets, in the shopping malls and parks.

The SAR government should also understand that Hong Kong’s economy and the livelihood of its people cannot survive the mounting stress from frequent resurgence of COVID-19 in the long run. Hong Kong has suffered an unprecedented economic slowdown for two years now. With the fiscal deficit at HK$300 billion last year the SAR government can no longer offer large-scale financial relief to local industries. So far the fourth round of disaster relief managed to exceed the previous (third) round, but clearly not enough to turn the situation around. For Hong Kong the speedy economic recovery depends on a resumption of normal cross-boundary flow of personnel with the mainland by maintaining effective control over the pandemic.

Can citywide vaccination put the pandemic under control? It is possible but not a sure bet. The previous shortest time for developing a successful vaccine is five years. Some of the COVID-19 vaccines, however, have been rushed out in less than a year. As a result their effectiveness may disappoint if not fail much sooner. Success of vaccines depends on extensive trials and starting over when necessary, which is why they can take years and even decades to complete. Also, the vaccination rate must exceed 70 percent of the population to achieve “herd immunity”. Considering that less than a quarter of Hong Kong residents participated in the universal community testing program in September last year and growing public misgivings toward the SAR government, the latter had better not to get its hopes too high for the effectiveness of the upcoming universal vaccination program.

Even medical experts who are staunch advocates of universal vaccination admit that while vaccinating the public against the pandemic is urgently needed, the SAR government should maintain preventive measures as long as necessary.

Nonetheless, if the objective is not set on achieving zero infections, anti-epidemic measures will be porous. If the government does not address the flaws now it may be faced with resurgence of COVID-19 infections and on-again, off-again economic activities resulting from a less than desirable vaccination rate of the population on the one hand and halfhearted anti-epidemic efforts on the other. That way an economic recession and even depression will ensue to disastrous effects. That is no doubt a recipe for a governance crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently said that restrictions aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 do not mean the death of civil liberties but rather a show of humanitarianism. If the SAR government decision makers do not wish to witness an economic depression that may lead to a socio-political crisis, they must put accommodating some people’s obsession with unconditional personal freedoms aside for now and focus on achieving zero infections by all means necessary, preferably in the first quarter of the year.

The author is a senior research fellow of China Everbright Holdings.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.