What price zero Covid? We need to know the cost to Hong Kong

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As the Omicron onslaught continues in Hong Kong, undermining the administration’s embattled efforts to stick with its “zero-Covid” tactics, the need is urgent for a rigorous cost-benefit examination of the best way forward.

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At a time when Covid-19 was self-evidently deadly, there was clear anxiety over the potential for hospitals to be overwhelmed and vaccines did not exist to provide protection, such an examination argued strongly for a strict “zero-Covid” approach. But that time has passed.

Ready access to vaccines and the fact Omicron appears less lethal than its predecessors means the danger of our hospitals being overwhelmed by gravely ill people has disappeared. On the contrary, as the Omicron outbreak spreads across Hong Kong, it is the government’s panic-driven effort to lock down housing blocks and test thousands of residents that is creating ruinous strain on our hospital system.

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But where is the much-needed cost-benefit analysis that weighs the increasingly flimsy arguments in support of “zero-Covid” against the mounting evidence of serious, potentially long-term harm being done to our community and our economy?

It would be unfair to claim there is any deliberate attempt to fudge the evidence of harm. But in the absence of interest in bringing that harm into sharp focus, a proper cost-benefit analysis remains impossible.

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Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po’s headline data has been used to suggest that harm, if any, is small. Note his recent blog laying the ground for his upcoming budget which expressed optimism for 2022, reporting 6.4 per cent growth for 2021 and unemployment down to 4.1 per cent, its lowest since December 2019.

My own sources suggest good reasons for graver concern. When our airport handled 1.2 million passengers in 2021 – compared with more than 70 million in 2018 – the negative impact across our economy must surely be huge.

When Cathay Pacific is carrying 2 per cent of its normal passenger load, has most of its aircraft parked in desert runways, has a significant share of pilots on furlough or unpaid leave and is losing up to HK$1.5 billion (US$192.7 million) a month, then large parts of our economy must also be in acute distress.

Take business chamber surveys talking increasingly openly about executive and corporate departures. Take international schools reporting falling student numbers and a sharp decline in debenture income as expatriate families leave.

Take Genting Hong Kong, which has terminated its “cruises to nowhere” as it files for bankruptcy. Take restaurant operators, who expect to lose more than HK$8 billion amid the ban on dining in restaurants after 6pm, with LKF Group CEO Jonathan Zeman warning, “For a lot in the sector, this means the end.”

Beyond such troubling anecdotal evidence, look at the Census and Statistics Department’s latest figures on Hong Kong retail sales. Compare sales for the first 11 months of 2021 with those for the same period in 2018 – the most recent “normal” year – and you see a 27.4 per cent fall, from HK$440.3 billion to US$319.6 billion. This probably means thousands of shop closures and tens of thousands of jobs lost.

Yet this alarming array of anecdotal evidence is not reflected in the macro data being reported by Chan. This has been particularly puzzling in our Official Receiver’s Office. Bankruptcies soared to 26,900 in 2002 after the dotcom crash and 15,800 in 2009 after the global financial crash, but last year they sagged to a 20-year low of just 7,200.

Why no surge in bankruptcies? I only have guesses. Clearly, government support measures such as the Anti-epidemic Fund, the Employment Support Scheme and the Consumption Voucher Scheme have persuaded many companies to “hang in there”, preferring to put staff on furloughs, short working hours or unpaid leave rather than sacking them in the hope of an early end to the pandemic.

Since it is harder to shut down a company than start one, I am sure many have fallen into a “zombie” state, with many bosses of small and medium-sized firms falling back on savings. What Chan is describing as evidence of recovery is more likely evidence of companies stumbling along on life support.

Look beyond Hong Kong and the evidence of the pandemic’s economic harm is clearer. The International Monetary Fund last week forecast that Covid-19 will cost the global economy more than US$12.5 trillion through to 2024. It also revised down its growth forecasts for 2022.

The International Labour Organization calculates the equivalent of 125 million jobs were lost last year because of the pandemic, with a further 52 million losses expected this year. It also says an additional 30 million adults have fallen into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic.

Closer to home in China, the public registry tracking firm Tianyancha reported at the end of December that almost 4.4 million Chinese small and medium-sized firms had shut down during 2021, with a similar number deregistered. That is around 20 per cent of the 40 million such firms in the country.

It is improbable that such acute stress has not been felt with equal force in Hong Kong. But the absence of relevant data or a government determination to understand clearly what harm the economy is suffering leaves us in a fog.

It also allows the administration to pre-empt a cost-benefit analysis that will enable us to judge whether the “zero-Covid” approach is still justified. Sadly, Chan’s upcoming budget is unlikely to shed much light.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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