Hong Kong’s covid lockdown chaos is driving an exodus

Hong Kong is seeing a record number of net departures by residents as the city is battered by a runaway covid outbreak — and hamstrung by a government caught completely flatfooted in its pandemic response.

For the past three weeks, there has been a net departure of over 20,000 residents each week, the highest levels in more than two years, according to numbers from the city’s immigration authorities and compiled by David Webb, a Hong Kong-based investor. The recent exodus has been driven in large part by an unpredictable, opaque, and poorly communicated public health policymaking process.

For weeks now, government authorities have hinted — both in public and through leaks to the media — at a possible mainland-style lockdown in Hong Kong as a way to curb transmission and carry out a compulsory mass-testing campaign.

Early last month, Beijing officials hinted that they were ready to impose such a lockdown on the city. But days later, Hong Kong’s leader and her deputy said there were no plans for a lockdown — for now. That seemed to offer citizens a modicum of reassurance. Then the health secretary said the government had not actually ruled out a lockdown, sparking citywide panic as people rushed to sweep store shelves clean of groceries and produce. Rather than acknowledge its suboptimal public communications strategy, the government condemned “rumors spread by individuals with ulterior motives.”

It has now been two weeks since the government announced its intention to test all 7.4 million residents three times. But there is still no clear timeline on when that will happen, and how.

A steady drumbeat of skepticism from experts has mounted in recent days, with most of the city’s most prominent public health experts questioning the efficacy of mass testing at this point in the outbreak. In the meantime, government officials literally swapped the seasons around by ordering all public schools to start their summer break this month so that campuses can be used for the still-elusive universal testing program.

With school calendars turned upside down, a dizzyingly uncertain saga over a potential lockdown, and arbitrary rules like allowing maskless indoor dining but banning maskless outdoor exercising, it’s little wonder that tens of thousands are rushing for the exit in droves.

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