From my 37th floor Interim Moodie Davitt Bureau in Tung Chung the scene below looks straight out of Toy Town, as seemingly miniscule buses, trucks, taxis and cars make their way around the roads circling this new town in Lantau island.
I’m settling in nicely into my new Hong Kong surrounds, the pace and rhythm of every day very different from that I experienced over several months of lockdown in London. Here, as ever, I rise early (usually around 6a.m) to catch up with the overnight news and emails but then I take a long walk along the seafront before looping around under the lush green hills and back to the Interim Moodie Davitt Bureau.
Today, most of the walk had to be indoors, due to the impact of Severe Tropical Storm Higos, which brought heavy rain, strong winds and a fair bit of damage to Hong Kong.
That meant taking a stroll through nearby Citygate Outlets, a shopping centre usually packed with cross-border shoppers snapping up bargains from a huge range of designer and other fashion and accessory brands as well as China Duty Free Group’s CDF Beauty store. Alas, Citygate is very, very quiet these days, a certain storm called COVID-19 having struck long before Higos and with much greater force.
While it’s great being ahead of much of the play due to the earlier time zone, afternoons and evenings tend to be hectic as Europe – and my own team – come online. Learning to cut off is not something I have shown much proficiency at to date so the working days are even longer, but it is something I need to learn if I am to enjoy the Asian life going forward.
I continue to marvel at – and be exasperated by – the difference in attitudes towards COVID-19 safety protocol here and in many western countries, notably the UK and US. In my last Blog I reported on the first outbreak of locally transmitted cases in New Zealand for over 100 days. That news happened eight days ago and as of this morning had resulted in 75 new infections.
Today six new infections were reported. Remember that number, six. And then read the following comments from US President Donald Trump, who told journalists on Monday: “Even New Zealand, did you see what’s going on in New Zealand? They beat it, they beat it. It was like front page, they beat it, because they wanted to show me something. The problem is, big surge in New Zealand … it’s terrible. So you know, we don’t want that.”
And you don’t have that Mr President, I can assure you. According to the New York Times, the US reported 1,349 deaths and 43,226 new COVID-19 cases yesterday. Over the past week, there have been an average of 49,102 cases per day.
A psychiatrist would have a field day with Trump’s comments. “It was like front page, they beat it, because they wanted to show me something.” Did the most powerful man on the planet really just say that? That New Zealand beat (or at least suppressed entirely for over 100 days) a raging pandemic because “they” wanted to show a deranged narcissist something.
I used two words just now, perhaps I should be more concise having discovered a rather fun website called Describe Trump in one word. If you want to increase your vocabulary, especially of expletives (I note one famously used by the inimitable Billy Connelly to describe former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair used 1,774 times but I shall not repeat it here), I can highly recommend it.
Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded tersely, “I don’t think there’s any comparison between New Zealand’s current cluster and the tens of thousands of cases that are being seen daily in the United States.”
Ms Arden is right, as she has been so often during this pandemic. As of today, the US has recorded 5,482,370 cases and 171,799 deaths – 24.85% and 22.04% of the global total, respectively. New Zealand has a death rate of just 4 people per million population and 330 cases per million, according to Worldometer. The US has a death rate of 529 per million people and 17,074 cases per million. Now that’s what I call terrible.
“Changi Airport will one day be full again, SIA planes will once again soar.” – Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung
On a more positive note, I was inspired by the words of Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung late last week, who spoke some of the most sensible and uplifting words I have heard from a politician throughout this long and painful crisis.
“Passenger volumes cannot be turned on and off capriciously,” he said. “We need to take sensible measures concurrently, proportionate to the risk profile of each country, and make progressive steps as we become more confident.”
Noting the damage caused by the pandemic to the country and its glorious gateway, Changi Airport, Mr Ong said: “COVID-19 has decimated air travel and incapacitated one of our lungs, but the Singapore heart – our determination, dynamism and enterprise – is still pumping strong. Changi Airport will one day be full again, SIA planes will once again soar. This is our collective mission in the coming months and years ahead.”
It’s also our mission outside Singapore. I liked very much the comment of travel retail industry veteran Alessandra Piovesana on our website today when she responded to UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili’s comments that governments had “overly focused on the health of their citizens at the expense of protecting businesses and livelihoods”.
“If our focal point is lives and livelihood, then there should be more integrated solutions, as ultimately we all gravitate around our customers/consumers to provide wealth and generate wealth,” wrote Alessandra. “In this case wealth and health. A macro transformational approach is needed but it must lead to innovative, thorough, sustainable, progressive and cooperative solutions.”
Alessandra and I both agree with the rest of Pololikashvili’s comments, however. The UNWTO leader said: “The re-opening of borders to tourism is a welcome relief to millions who depend on our sector. But this alone is not enough, especially in view of recent announcements and measures which seem further and further away from the international coordination that UNWTO has been calling for since the pandemic erupted.”
“Those in positions of leadership and influence have recognised the importance of tourism for jobs, economies and rebuilding trust. This is only the first step. Now, they must do everything they can to get people travelling again, following and implementing all the protocols which are part of the new reality.”
The UK government, whose performance during the pandemic (and again during the current fiasco over A-level results) has often resembled a Marx Brothers movie, could well have been the subject of Pololikashvili’s ire. Boris Johnson’s sorry lot certainly were in the sights of Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye this week as he announced the opening of a new COVID-19 testing facility at Terminal 2, created by airport services company Collinson and Swissport.
The facility enables arriving passengers to be tested for COVID-19 upon landing and know just hours later if they have tested positive. The airport company hopes that with approval from the Government, people testing negative during the process will be allowed to exit quarantine early.
Collinson Joint CEO David Evans said: “Airport testing is still the most viable solution to increasing travel while keeping virus spread low. We’re pleased to announce that our solution is ready to give a massively needed boost to international trade as well as inbound business and leisure travel, crucial to the recovery of so many sectors. This can all be done with the reassurance that this is science-led, making it safe to do so.”
Holland-Kaye, added: “Testing will not only avoid the ‘quarantine roulette’ that so many passengers faced in Spain and France, it will also open up flights to key trading partners such as the US, Canada and Singapore. This facility is an oven-ready opportunity to see how Britain can safely reopen for business, as other countries are doing.”
Nicely put. And perhaps the oven analogy will strike home for Boris. After all, most of his government’s response to this crisis to date has been half-baked.