Making the Poor Poorer through Covid

Let me start with a few examples.

Near my home there is a park. It has a jogging track that is about two metres wide, so just wide enough that one person can pass another without violating the 1.5m limit on social distancing. In practice, however, during just about every opening hour, the jogging track is too crowded for those using it to avoid violating that minimum distance. The reason the track is so crowded is that the grass playing fields it borders are off-limits. Therefore, instead of allowing people to exercise safely in their own space on the grass, the government in effect forces us into a crowded and narrow path, thereby increasing our chances of infection.

Perhaps the strain of coronavirus in Hong Kong likes grass but not concrete. It is not its only peculiarity: the Hong Kong strain is dormant during daylight hours only to become a lethal pathogen on the stroke of 6 p.m. every evening. I haven’t seen the science – because one internet search after another seems to have missed these crucial mutations – but I’m sure the government’s reasons are well-founded.

Another peculiarity, very much in evidence in country parks, is that, while the trails are coronavirus-free, the picnic and barbeque areas are not. They are taped off with DO NOT CROSS tapes, more like crime scenes than recreational facilities. Nevertheless, the handrails on Bowen Road are sanitised – by a team consisting of two cleaners, a supervisor and a driver whose job it is to keep the engine idling and the air-conditioning running – every morning.

Despite the sanitation, Bowen Road has become a hotbed of crime, with the police handing out tickets to those who are attempting to remain fit and healthy, the better to reduce their chances of infection or, should they become infected, to reduce the likelihood that they will need to be hospitalised. Of course, the police are not penalising them for jogging per se – it is the regulations that are at fault, not the police. But jogging in thirty-plus degree heat with a mask is very hard work. I suppose that if one is fit enough to exercise, one is fit enough to exercise with a mask.

Against this, we have a Secretary of Labour and Welfare who, with an IQ of 160, when interviewed was unaware that there were people in Hong Kong who labour outdoors on, say, construction sites, sweeping streets, policing the streets, or simply being on the streets because they’re homeless, and a Secretary of Food and Health who let it slip that she is unaware that some people – catering and health workers would seem rather obvious, but there are also bus, train and ambulance drivers – who were not able to work from home because the nature of their jobs precludes it. (Prof. Law needed a rainstorm to bring the point home, while Dr. Sophia Chan’s words were “原來有咁多市民要外出返工” which translates to: “Ooo? So there are so many citizens who need to go outside to work!”)

Given the above, anyone attempting to accuse the government of operating to a grand design would appear to be on shaky ground: as the policies are not designed at all, they can hardly be designed with a purpose. But, although I don’t think these policies are designed to make the poor worse off – and I include in the category of poor anyone who is not rich – you couldn’t do a much better job of designing policies to make the poor worse off if you tried.

Take the fitness business. Most of us cannot afford to have a private gym at home: the equipment is expensive and bulky and simply won’t fit in the average Hong Kong flat. The poor are therefore forced to exercise in public spaces, most of which have been artificially decreased in size – because coronavirus likes grass – increasing both their own chances of becoming infected and of infecting others.

Take the catering business. There must be thousands of owner-operated restaurants and bars in Hong Kong who lose half their trading day because the coronavirus is only active after 6 p.m. I don’t think the owner-operators are bad people, but its an economic reality that they need to cut staff wages to reflect the shortened hours and consequently reduced income. Those workers are already in the bottom quartile; they now have even less to take home.

Take public transport. The MTR is a government-controlled organisation. It has reduced the headway to six minutes, meaning that those of us who rely on it are forced into carriages that are far more crowded than they would be if the MTR ran trains at its usual two or three minutes headway. I guess caring for life’s journey’s means that a train every six minutes to save money matters more than a train every two minutes to save lives.

I could go on. As I said, I see no evidence of a design here. But to come up with such a contradictory and self-defeating set of responses indicates a level of divorce from reality that is epic.

I don’t think there is a simple solution to the deep-rooted culture of complacency that gives rise to this madness, but I do have a suggestion. In addition to the many patriotic education classes that our civil servants will doubtless be enjoying in the next few months, I suggest that all senior officers of the Hong Kong civil should be compelled to spend one fortnight every year in a public housing unit, with an allowance comparable to the average income of their neighbours, cut off from the perquisites of their office and from their credit cards and bank accounts. After all, if Hong Kong’s is to be a people’s government, what better way of getting to know the people you rule is there than experiencing what they experience?