Why Hong Kong Is Now One of the Worst Places to Be in Covid Era

by BLOOMBERG / pic by AFP

HONG KONG fell to second last among the 53 places scored in Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking in February, marking a rapid decline over the past few months.

The financial hub has dropped to the lowest position ever occupied by a developed economy in the 16 editions of the measure, which tracks the best and worst places to be in the pandemic. After flying as high as ninth a year ago, in January 2021, Hong Kong’s worst ever outbreak is crippling its pursuit of Covid Zero and paralyzing the once-vibrant economy.

The Ranking, a monthly snapshot of where the virus is being handled the most effectively with the least social and economic upheaval, scores places on 11 datapoints from virus containment and the death toll, to economic growth and progress toward reopening.

Hong Kong’s score reflects how it has spiraled into a worst-of-both-worlds Covid crisis.

While its case and death numbers are still low compared to Western economies that have adjusted to living with the virus, they’ve ballooned higher than any place seeking to eliminate the pathogen has ever been able to contain. And strict restrictions and border curbs remain as the city tries to stamp out infection, isolating it from the rest of the world – including mainland China, which fears contagion from the city.

Vaccination has accelerated after the more contagious omicron variant ended Hong Kong’s remarkable, all but virus-free run. But it’s still one of the lowest among developed economies on the Ranking when it comes to shots. Economic growth forecasts have also been slashed as analysts see a low chance of the situation coming under control any time soon.

Closed Door

The city scores poorly on the Ranking’s reopening metrics. Flight Capacity, which measures how far air travel has gotten back to normal, is 89% below 2019 levels, the lowest of the places ranked. Airlines planned fewer than 600 flights out of Hong Kong in February, down from over 14,000 monthly before the pandemic. It is also among the bottom-ranked in the Vaccinated Travel Routes indicator, which measures travel recovery: Flights are suspended until at least April 20 from nine countries deemed high risk because of their Covid outbreaks, including the U.S., U.K. and Australia. All visitors besides those from China are barred, and returning residents are subject to 14 days in quarantine.

While strict travel curbs have been in place in Hong Kong for much of the past two years, what’s worsened in February is the return of strict social curbs to stop the spread of infection. Schools have shuttered, public gatherings are limited to two people while no more than two households can gather privately, contributing to one of the worst scores in the Ranking’s Lockdown Severity indicator.

Surging Cases

On the Ranking’s indicators that reflect outbreak size, Hong Kong’s current caseload – reaching 711 infected per 100,000 people in the past month – is still much smaller in scale than many economies that have shifted to treating the virus as endemic. But infections are likely to continue growing, with projections for daily cases to reach 183,000 by early March.

The Ranking’s two mortality metrics are what keeps Hong Kong from dropping even further. Accumulated fatalities since the start of the pandemic, of 45 Covid deaths per 1 million people, are still far below the median among ranked economies of 1,086. The city’s Three-Month Case Fatality Rate – a measure of reported deaths divided by reported cases over the past quarter – remains at a low level of 0.2%, though concerns are growing that the unvaccinated elderly in particular will succumb quickly as hospitals come under strain.

Social Costs

Meanwhile, the outbreak has extracted significant economic and social costs, as shown in the Ranking’s quality of life indicators. Community Mobility has fallen to 23% below a pre-pandemic benchmark, and the economy is forecast to grow 3% this year, less than before omicron’s spread.

Staying in Place

The Ranking’s 11 data indicators are aggregated through the “max-min” method, which means that each economy’s data is scored in relation to the others, and not in absolute. Hong Kong’s fall therefore reflects not just its current crisis, but how far it has moved away from other places in its approach to the pandemic.

Over two years into the Covid era, a place once known for being a hub for global businesses is now increasingly untethered from the world at large.