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Editorial:The spectre of a winter of disease

【明報專訊】RECENTLY a string of countries has announced adjustments to their anti-pandemic strategies, significantly relaxing entry quarantine restrictions in the short term. Thailand is the latest example. The COVID-19 virus is here to stay. Ultimately, the human race has to ''coexist with the virus''. However, the outcome could be disastrous if this route is taken when the conditions and time are not ripe. For Hong Kong, the continuation of strict pandemic restrictions to strive for the reopening of the border with mainland China as soon as possible is the most in line with public health and economic needs.

In Europe and the US, the substantial relaxation of pandemic restrictions has gone on for quite some time. Not long ago, Washington announced that beginning from next month, people from certain countries who are vaccinated will be allowed to enter and travel to the US. In the Asia-Pacific region, some countries have begun to adjust their anti-pandemic strategies in recent months. No longer striving to bring case numbers to zero, they have now switched to the strategy of ''coexistence with COVID-19''. In August Singapore relaxed its entry restrictions, allowing people from areas where the pandemic situation is stable to enter the country without quarantine. Following in Singapore's footsteps, Australia and Thailand have also recently decided to relax entry rules and open their borders next month. The Australian government has stated that starting next month, residents who are vaccinated will only need to be in home quarantine for 7 days after returning to Australia. In other words, they no longer need to undergo 14 days of mandatory hotel quarantine. This will bring an end to the strict restrictions on Australian nationals' entry into and departure from the country that have been in place for 18 months. This week, the Thai government also announced that it will allow vaccinated travellers from 10 ''low-risk countries'' including China, the US and the UK to enter the country without quarantine and move around freely.

The pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to the global tourism industry. Christmas and the New Year are major Western holidays. Many countries that are highly dependent on revenues from tourism no doubt hope that borders can be reopened in time to save the economy. However, the pandemic situation and vaccination rate vary from one country to another. A rash move to relax pandemic restrictions is no different from a public health gamble.

The vaccination rate in Singapore exceeds 80%. Since the adoption of the ''coexistence with the virus'' strategy, the number of confirmed cases has increased sharply locally. There are more than 3,000 confirmed cases in a single day. 98% of them are mild, less than 2% are severe, and the mortality rate is only 0.2%. This highlights the efficacy of vaccines. However, if we ignore the proportions but focus only on actual numbers, we can see that since Singapore adjusted its pandemic policies, the number of cases in which a ventilator is needed increased tenfold from less than 20 to nearly 200 within merely a month. Cases requiring intensive treatment have increased from 5 previously to 34 recently. Singapore has a relatively sound medical system, and might be able to withstand the impact of such numbers. But this is not something the medical system of every region can handle.

The mainland authorities still have doubts about Hong Kong's pandemic control capabilities. The top priority for the Hong Kong government is to implement the necessary measures as soon as possible to pave the way for the reopening of the border. At the same time, it must continue to make an effort to boost the vaccination rate and pay attention to the flu situation this winter. The WHO recommends that people aged 60 or above who have received the Sinovac vaccine be given the third dose. The authorities should arrange it as soon as possible. In addition, the government should also step up efforts to promote the vaccination of the elderly. If rice handouts and supermarket coupons do not prove attractive enough, other methods can be considered. If Hong Kong is unable to boost the vaccination rate further and significantly, ''coexistence with the virus'' in the long term will be nothing but empty talk.

明報社評 2021.10.14:「病疫之冬」陰霾隱現 抗疫通關目標不改

近期陸續有國家宣布調整抗疫策略,短期內顯著放寬入境檢疫限制,泰國是最新例子。新冠病毒不會消失,終極狀態一定是「與病毒共存」,然而條件時機未成熟便勉強為之,隨時可釀災難後果。對香港而言,繼續嚴控疫情,爭取與內地早日恢復正常通關,最符合公共衛生和經濟需要。

歐美大幅放寬防疫措施已有一段時間。華府不久前宣布,下月起容許部分國家已打針者入境旅遊。亞太區方面,部分國家近月開始調整抗疫策略,由原先爭取「清零」,變成「與病毒共存」。繼今年8月新加坡放寬入境限制,容許疫情穩定地區人士入境免檢疫隔離,最近澳洲和泰國亦決定下月起「鬆綁通關」。澳洲政府表示,下月起,已接種疫苗居民返國後,只需居家隔離7天,毋須強制14天酒店隔離,持續18個月的國民出入境嚴格限制告一段落。及至本周,泰國政府亦宣布,容許來自中美英等10個「低風險國家」已打針旅客入境免隔離,可以全面自由活動。

疫情重挫全球旅遊業,聖誕新年是西方重大節日,不少國家高度依賴旅遊業收入,當然希望可以及時恢復通關,挽救經濟,然而不同國家抗疫形勢有別,疫苗接種率不一,貿然鬆綁其實是一場公共衛生賭博。

新加坡疫苗接種率超過八成,改採「與病毒共存」策略以來,當地確診病例急增,單日超過3000多宗,98%病例皆為輕症,重症不足2%,死亡率僅為0.2%,突顯了疫苗的作用,惟不談比例只看實數,自從星洲調整防疫政策以來,需要呼吸機的個案,短短一個月由不足20宗,上升10倍至接近200宗;深切治療個案則由之前的5宗,升至近期的34宗。新加坡醫療系統相對強健,這樣的數字,也許仍「頂得住」,可是這並非每個地方的醫療系統都能做到。

內地對香港防疫把關仍有疑慮,港府首務是盡快落實所需措施,讓通關水到渠成,同時亦要繼續在疫苗接種方面下工夫,以及留意今冬流感情况。世衛建議六旬以上已打科興疫苗人士接種第三針,當局應及早安排,另外,政府亦應加緊推動長者打針,派米派超市券未夠吸引力,可以考慮其他方法,倘若香港無法進一步顯著谷高接種率,長遠「與病毒共存」不過是空談。

■/ Glossary 生字 /

ripe:ready or suitable for sth to happen

strive:to try very hard to achieve sth

rash:doing sth that may not be sensible without first thinking about the possible results; done in this way

■英語社評聲檔:link.mingpao.com/53000.htm

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