Hong Kong is will reportedly be suing Cathay Pacific over its latest and worst outbreak to date of Covid-19, which the government is blaming on two crewmembers.
The two flight attendants have already been charged with breaking pandemic rules and face a trial in criminal court but Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has previously suggested that she was holding Cathay Pacific responsible for the outbreak.
Hong Kong has some of the strictest quarantine rules in the world for aircrew but recognising the city’s reliance on imported goods, aircrew who entered the territory on cargo-only flights were allowed to skip two weeks of hotel quarantine for just three days of home isolation.
The easier isolation rules appear to have been intended only for dedicated cargo pilots but Cathay Pacific also brought flight attendants home on freighter-only services. Cathay chairman Patrick Healy insists the apparent loophole wasn’t against the rules as they were written at the time.
#BREAKING: Hong Kong’s Department of Justice sues Cathay Pacific Airways for failing to keep Omicron at bay, one source says, after two infected crew members broke quarantine rules upon arrival. The city’s leader Carrie Lam has openly said she would hold the airline accountable.
— Ezra Cheung (@ezracheungtoto) February 14, 2022
A country with tight enough borders, especially surrounded on all sides by water, can lock down hard enough and keep a virus off its shores – at least for awhile. The barriers can’t be porous in any way.
- If there’s cargo, people bring the cargo. They have some contact with locals. Even in quarantine, there could be contact. While Covid-19 doesn’t usually spread through ventilation it could or build up in a hallway. There’s not a non-zero chance, and non-zero chances are the only way to keep virus out indefinitely.
- Any breaks in border controls create avenues of risk. Or false negative tests. If quarantine is long enough, assume everyone is positive, test multiple times. But see the point above.
- If there are diplomatic exceptions, all bets are off.
The more infectious the virus, the harder it is to keep out. It was more feasible with the original Wuhan strain, and it got successively more difficult with Alpha, Delta, and Omicron.
The idea that Hong Kong would be facing zero covid if it wasn’t for Cathay Pacific is implausible. And Hong Kong relies on cargo, it can’t isolate completely. Even eliminating transit passengers (too late) and creating a bubble with China, the mainland’s Covid has been limited but not zero.
Like the mainland, though, scapegoating is an important political narrative. President Xi has staked his re-election at the 20th Party Congress on a strong response to the virus, that the Chinese system under his leadership is best-equipped to handle an emergency of this nature (whether the virus emerged naturally or through a lab leak). And Hong Kong’s turn away from the West in favor of integration into the ‘Greater Bay Region’ is staked on the superiority of the Chinese system.
In order to complete the transformation of Hong Kong, Hong Kong must remain as vigilant against Covid-19 as the rest of China. And for its politicians to secure their future, they must deflect blame for any outbreaks. The response to it’s Cathay Pacific’s fault isn’t whether Cathay Pacific employees were following all rules (it appears that they were, but that’s not the point) it’s what alternative was there?
Hong Kong created limited quarantine to support necessary cargo, and that meant creating additional avenue for risk of transmission. Any risk of transmission, with something as fast-spreading as Omicron, means that there will be transmission. And even without spread through this channel, there’d be spread through others.
The problem here is that Hong Kong is immunologically naive from its partial reliance on Sinovac vaccines and from limited prior spread of the virus, and that they must keep a zero Covid strategy since the mainland is so immunologically naive – and can’t have major outbreaks until the fall when President Xi secures his unprecedented third term.
Lockdowns can make sense to delay infection and preserve hospital capacity, to spread out illness or as a bridge to vaccines and better treatments. We largely have those now, and all restrictions can do is delay infection, since the virus isn’t going away from the world. Any restriction that doesn’t make sense permanently likely no longer makes sense or won’t in the next few months.