Why Hong Kong Is Scapegoating Cathay Pacific For Covid-19

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.

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Why is it that, when Carrie Lam’s name appears in the news, it’s always for something that benefits the interests of the mainland and not the interests of Hong Kong?

  2. With 2,000+ reported cases just today, it seems implausible that any amount of restrictions can stop a widespread outbreak in HK at this point.

  3. @Breathe Free – she is the CCP approved leader of Hong Hong so of course she supports the Chinese view. You do realize Hong Kong is fully a part of China (yes with supposed separate rules) and they will continue to heavily influence policy. At this point China’s interests and those of Hong Kong are essentially the same

  4. My Hong Kong ID expires later this year. But it’s pretty much worthless since I haven’t been able to go back to my favorite city in the World for over two years.
    You will *never* convince me that HK’s fuss over COVID and its quarantine have nothing to do with COVID more than they do keeping foreigners out who might question the CCP boot on the neck of Hong Kongers. Heck, even the President of the HK-US Chamber, Tara Joseph, has left Hong Kong. And she was a long-time resident and a tireless advocate for Hong Kong.
    Hong Kong has lost 219 people to COVID. SARS killed 293, but without the hoopla and quarantine.
    Something’s wrong with this picture.
    And I’m not minimizing either coronavirus or SARS. In HK park there is a memorial to the medical workers who died treating SARS patients. Very lifelike busts and a quiet touching place.

  5. China’s goal is to destroy Hong Kong economically, and replace Hong Kong firms with Chinese firms. In Cathay’s case, China’s decision to extend the ban prohibiting transit passengers was another method of attack.

  6. It’s not the Hong Kong I knew and loved from 1978-2013. Thank goodness I no longer travel there for business! And I agree totally with anon and somewhat with Woofie.

  7. @Ronni @ Anon I can say the same thing. It it not the same place I love from 2007-2019. Thanks god I don’t have to travel there for business anymore due to COVID-19. It is just another another under CCP regime.

  8. Communists always hate a successful business. And in this case, especially so, because Cathay Pacific would’ve always offered a superior product to anything operating in Red China.

    Consider the alternatives: China Eastern, where the food is served frozen and the stews smoke in the galleys. Or China Southern, with its inferior hub at CAN. Mainland Chinese carriers aren’t invested in a global network, or in luring premium international travelers. Cathay Pacific was long one of the world’s finest air carriers, and these others are a laughable comparison. They’d never defeat CX on product, so they have to defeat them using state power and dirty tricks. It’s yet another jewel of Asia, shattered by power-mad autocrats.

  9. You guys don’t know anything about HK. Stop interfering in other people’s businesses. Do we criticize what you do in your family?
    If the CX flight attendants did not go out everywhere in HK, the virus wouldn’t have spread so fast if they stayed home. HK’s techniques has worked for a long time until the CX crew members spread it out and share with different people at restaurants, which in turn spreads to even more people… Rules are rules. Laws are laws. People not following the rules or law is selfish.
    And STOP politicizing things! You guys know nothing about Hong Kong!

  10. “The idea that America will be crime free is implausible” so according to logic by Gary we should not prosecute law breakers because that would be scapegoating.

    What a transparently political post of no travel value. Shame on you.

  11. FYI, the current outbreak of Omicron cases in HK did not originate from the two Cathay Pacific FAs who came back on cargo flights and left home before their home quarantine was supposed to be over.

    Instead, the current outbreak came from a person who caught it WHILE in a quarantine hotel (then, 21 days), from another person in quarantine.

    Source: SCMP journalist Gigi Choy- https://twitter.com/gigi_choy/status/1484932402166255628/photo/1

  12. How can you guarantee is not from the two crew members? People at the restaurants where they ate at, got infected, and it spread like wildfire.
    HK is different where population dense packed, once it spreads, it’s uncontrollable and this being Omicron. HK has the strictest quarantine rules for travelers, I won’t doubt that traveler had anything to do with it, but the two crew members cannot be excluded from the responsibility of eating out while they should be in quarantine for 3 days until their next flight out.

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