As Covid-19 continues to rampage in Hong Kong and came back as a third wave with vengeance in July 2020, with infected number over 100 for 10 consecutive days, citizens grew tired and panicky. As of 5 August this year, Hong Kong has 3755 confirmed cases, 2314 recoveries and 43 deaths. The first case in Hong Kong was identified at 23 January 2020, 5 months 25 days ago. Due to our experience with SARS, our diligence with masking, social distancing and hand washing, we came out of the first wave fairly intact. The second wave took place in late March with 48 new cases on 20 March 2020. This was attributed to residents returning to Hong Kong from Europe without compulsory testing. Things quiet down a bit after tighter control till early July when the third wave hit us. The experts attributed this to over 20 categories of exempted persons numbering over 200000 who arrived into Hong Kong without testing. Experts tied the source of infection to air crew members, sea farers and domestic helpers.
In July this year, the Health Department opened up free deep throat saliva testing without the need to see a doctor, resulting in further anxiety for the citizens as testified by the long queues outside the public clinics from 4 am to compete for a saliva bottles. Public laboratory service, however, was stretched to the limit and the public laboratory was dealing with samples from July 16 when I phoned in and asked them about my specimens on 30 July, a delay of nearly 2 weeks in reporting. The Centre for Health Protection, in their letters to doctors and on the media, requested doctors to test only those with mild symptoms. This inconsistency in testing policy posed a dilemma for doctors – indiscriminate testing or only those with symptoms, albeit mild.
Citizens working in construction site, sanitation business and as security guards and who live in the neighbourhood of an infected person have been asked by their employer to produce a certificate of negative Covid-19 test result before they are allowed to return to work. If they do not want to wait the wait, they have to foot the bill of near $1500 to have the test done in a private laboratory. More recently, Mainland authority and Macau immigration have requested that travellers from Hong Kong produce a valid Covid-19 negative test result within 3 days before travellers are allowed entry into their territory. My colleague in the Medical Association had suggested in a prior press conference that government provide a health coupon for citizens to support them to get themselves tested in the private sector if there is a time constraint. I further suggested that the coupon could be used to treat Covid-19 related illness such as anxiety depression, panic attack, social phobia, breathing difficulty, facial mask dermatitis, acne, and so on.
Unfortunately, what we said in the press conference was twisted into an evil plan to enrich doctors through testing which can result in billions of dollars of revenue from the government. However, 99.9% of doctors are not proprietors or share owners of private laboratories or on the board of directors of private hospital. If testing were to be done, it is because of the need and doctors will not benefit from the testing fees. As pointed out earlier, there are other related illness and stress that needed to be managed and the condition reassured. The health coupon would be helpful to those in these difficult times when many are out of a job.
It is now settled that government has invited Mainland experts to help out with our epidemic. Up till yesterday, the Medical, Nursing and Medical technologist profession have no clue about what they will be doing in Hong Kong, what kind of experts they are, whether they will submit the CV for registration to practice in Hong Kong, where they will work and what kind of work they will do. In the Medical Association press conference, the news of Mainland expert arriving had not been confirmed, and I commented that it may be chaotic when the local doctors and Mainlanders had to work together because of difference in language and record keeping. If the Mainland experts are to be working by themselves and taking charge of the AsiaWorld Expo makeshift hospital, this would be a possible solution. I made it clear in the Press Conference that I would not be using strong remarks to oppose Mainlanders working in Hong Kong to assist us.
Already there is report that the Mainland experts will be setting up Universal testing of up to 200000 tests a day with the aim of screening the whole population and finding out the occult carriers. Unless a curfew is posed to keep all these tested indoor to wait for the whole population screening is completed, it would be difficult to prevent reinfection. The last three days saw the number of infection daily dropping down to two figures, making the need for universal testing a valid question. However, if the test from Mainland cost $15 an examination, as some KOL on the internet claim, and if it is opened to the public, this would solve the problem of expensive testing for some of our citizens who needed the test quick and cheap.
Our local experts have located the source of the third wave to aircrew and seafarers from overseas who were exempted from testing prior to the third wave. There were over 200000 people coming into Hong Kong untested and brought on the third wave. This loophole is closed but there are still over 20 groups of people who are exempted from testing and this may continue to pose a threat. Government seems reluctant to permanently close this gate.
The creation of temporary hospital in AsiaWorld Expo site and at Penny’s Bay aims to relief the congestion in the public hospital. Public hospitals do not have enough isolation beds and rooms for Covid-19 patients. The rationale of the temporary hospitals is to pool those with mild illness together on the assumption that they are already infected and it would not matter if they are grouped together. However, doctors are stressed and even infected. Uninfected patients have been brought to stay with infected patients in the same room or in the temporary hospital. A re-distribution of manpower has to be arranged. Doctors from the dirty team could not even get a hotel room to stay to rest themselves and avoid contaminating their own family. Private sector doctors have not been asked to share the work of the public service. With over 6000 doctors with potential to contribute, when is the Health authority going to tap this resource?
I have confidence that Hongkongers will pull through this stage of the epidemic. We need to be resilient and keep our masks on, our hands washed, social distancing kept and remain at home with our family unless we are forced to go out. Government has to learn from mistakes and balance the risk and well-being of citizens and made correction as soon as possible such as banning lunch and breakfast in restaurants and forcing the labourers to eat on the street with their mask down and sitting side by side on the road. God bless Hong Kong.
To the people of Radio Television Hong Kong, from past to present, both Chinese and English, on radio or television and of course the new media of the Internet and mobile, this is a letter to thank you all — to those I have the good fortune to have met or worked with as well as others I have not — for your dedication, steadfastness and utter professionalism.
For Hongkongers of my generation, we literally grew up with RTHK. We watched “Under the Lion Rock” and witness the courage and compassion of grassroots Hong Kong citizens as they struggled with daily hardships and injustice — yet coming through with a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, defined by love and decency, becoming what we today would consider to be the spirit of Hong Kong, and our core values, including freedom, equality, charity and integrity.
And so we watched “When We Were Young”, well, when we are really young children, in the 1970s. Then, as teenagers, we listened and sang along to music from the 1980s golden age of Hong Kong pop, played by Radio Hong Kong deejays in the afternoon. And as we grew up together, we followed the beat of the city on “Hong Kong Connection” and “City Forum”, as we tried to make sense of a more complicated Hong Kong.
And yes, I have had the good fortune of working with a great many RTHK programs, radio and TV, as a guest, interviewee, co-host, or like what I am doing now, occasionally contributing to Letters to Hong Kong. In the mid-1990s I even had the opportunity to work with a bunch of great people from inside and outside of RTHK to bring its live radio programs to the Internet, letting Hong Kongers all over the world connect with their home city. In my capacity now as a legislator, naturally I have more interactions with the journalists of RTHK, a group that I find to be among the best in Hong Kong.
But it has also become clear to me that, since the handover, the role of RTHK has increasingly come under scrutiny and pressure, by those who want to see it turned into a mouthpiece for authorities. Ever since its establishment in 1928, RTHK has always been an exemplary public broadcaster. But it was never properly commissioned and set up as a statutory body or corporation for public service broadcasting. It remains just a government department, currently under the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau.
When the public broadcaster is just a department in government, being assigned with an annual budget decided by the government, how does RTHK find its balance from being controlled by the government through budget and policy on the one hand, yet maintain its editorial and creative independence on the other? This is exactly where successive administrations of the Hong Kong SAR government are finding themselves at odds with RTHK, which is already functioning well as a mature, professional, globally recognised and acclaimed public broadcaster. By adopting the mentality of the Central Government and its ruling Party, the Hong Kong SAR government wants any critical voices silenced.
This explains why RTHK has come under persecution from none other than the SAR government itself, with it political cronies, as Beijing interferes with the affairs of Hong Kong more and more blatantly and directly, we even heard news about alleged directives from the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Office in Beijing to the Chief Executive in Hong Kong telling her to “rein in” RTHK.
Sadly, since before 2009, RTHK has been looking for a new home for its studios and offices, to replace its antiquated and insufficient facilities and infrastructures, but to no avail. The pro-establishment vetoed a previous attempt by the government to fund a new RTHK broadcasting building in Tseung Kwan O in early 2014, and the government never came back with a new proposal. In the meantime, RTHK has been tasked with additional responsibilities of two new digital TV channels, as well as for a while, digital audio broadcasting and one analog TV channel.
So, more work, more responsibilities, but not enough new resources, with no commitment for future development in sight. And then the government’s communications regulator allows the commercial broadcasters — TVB and NowTV — to stop showing RTHK TV programs on their airtime. What next? The very government bureau that puts a limit on RTHK’s funding complained about the “low ratings” of RTHK’s digital TV channels, in spite of the fact that even this criticism is largely unfounded as it conveniently overlooks the success RTHK has achieved in its new media services, including the high level of online reach via YouTube, Facebook and its mobile apps. So all these talks about low ratings are largely an excuse to cap or cut RTHK’s budget, to force it to become more obedient, editorially less independent and less critical, making it act more like the government’s mouthpiece in some authoritarian countries. RTHK’s critics picked on “The Headliner” — a long-running weekly show taking a satirical view on our current affairs and politics — and “The Pulse”, an English weekly news magazine, in particular over a recent interview with a World Health Organization official, where the programme host probed the WHO official about Taiwan. A journalist’s completely neutral and open-ended question somehow crossed the red line of Beijing. Some questions cannot even be asked.
Last week, the Education Bureau suddenly ordered RTHK to return the ETV facility on Broadcast Drive, on short and sudden notice — due to the termination of RTHK’s production of educational TV programs for EDB. Is this the way government departments deal with each other, without even the most basic courtesy and consideration? It is clearly yet another lesson the administration wants to teach RTHK, in line with calls from so many pro-establishment legislators to “punish” RTHK. It is both petty and vindictive.
But I know the people of Hong Kong are with you, all of you at RTHK. We can see that this is more than just a job for you. This is a fight for not only Hong Kong’s treasured tradition of public service broadcasting, but also the professionalism and core values of Hong Kong that you are protecting, that our authorities are trying to manhandle and ultimately destroy. In particular for the journalists at RTHK, we know you are fighting a tough battle with the rest of Hong Kong’s frontline journalists against the flood of misinformation often stemming right from the authorities themselves, and facing more and more senselessly violent abuse and physical dangers from the police force on the frontline. What I want to say is, this is not just your fight, it is for us all Hongkongers. Editorial independence vs propaganda, freedom vs censorship.
So, a lot of people ask me, what can we do now, for RTHK. Well, we can continue to tune in, listen and watch like before, as well as view, like and share online. Hundreds of thousands of us have signed online petition to support RTHK and urge the Director of Broadcasting to stand firm. These are the least we could do. And we will continue.
But we must also counter the attacks on RTHK in all ways we can, so that everyone in Hong Kong will see how divisive and politically motivated these attacks are, and how they will rob us of Hong Kong’s best, sinking us to a level unworthy of being a global city that we thought we were.
We must also remind everyone in Hong Kong, how ridiculous it is for our government, and indeed the same Commerce and Economic Development Bureau to propose to give billions of dollars to bail out an Ocean Park whose bottom has fallen out, yet at the same time hang RTHK out to dry. If we have to pick one of the two, gosh, the people’s choice is clear. It must be our RTHK.
To our friends at RTHK, thank you for standing right next to the people of Hong Kong all these years. And we will stand with you.