【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
■/ 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