Hong Kong’s new mass COVID testing scheme is free and voluntary—and some citizens are suspicious
Hong Kong will begin universal testing for COVID-19 on Sept. 1, offering each of its 7.5 million residents a test for free in an effort to uncover hidden cases of the coronavirus. The operation comes as the Special Administrative Region of China battles a third wave of the coronavirus, which has bumped the local infection count up from around 1,000 in July to over 4,600 as of Monday.
But the scheme, which has been coordinated with professionals from mainland China, faces pushback from citizens wary of Beijing’s involvement in the operation and skeptical of the local government. Public trust in both the local and central government are at all-time lows, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), with 25% of respondents trusting Hong Kong officials and 20% trusting authorities in Beijing.
Democratic Party councilor Ted Hui told the Wall Street Journal that Hong Kong people are “deeply worried” that their DNA could be harvested during testing and used by the local police or Beijing for “other purposes like what has happened in Xinjiang in the concentration camps.”
Meanwhile, other lawmakers argue the initiative is simply a waste of time and money. The “test and trace” scheme will be effective only if testing is widespread and if people remain fairly isolated while awaiting results. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, meanwhile, is hoping a sense of duty will motivate Hong Kongers to sign up. On Friday, she urged residents to follow their “civil responsibility” and get tested.
How will testing work?
The testing will commence on Sept. 1 and run for one or two weeks, depending upon demand. The government will establish over 100 testing centers—located in converted schools, leisure facilities, and other buildings—across the region’s 18 districts, which will operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. throughout the week. Citizens have to book a time slot online in order to get a test.
The universal scheme will require a testing professional to administer a nose and throat swab to collect a sample. Only citizens over 6 years old not suffering from coronavirus symptoms will be tested, since the campaign is trying to find asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 that might go undetected otherwise. People with negative results will be notified by text, while those with a positive result will be contacted and quarantined by government health workers.
Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan has said they expect 5 million people to participate in the test, but Lam told reporters she has not set a “rigid target” for participation.
Who will take part?
According to Hong Kong’s Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip, over 3,000 medical staff have registered to help conduct testing, while the Global Times reports 50 testing experts from mainland China have been dispatched to assist Hong Kong. Three mainland Chinese labs have also been recruited to help process the tests, using temporary labs within Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government estimates the three labs will be able to test 500,000 samples per day, but mainland China’s involvement in the process has stoked fears that Beijing will use the testing to further suppress protests and civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Last year the New York Times reported authorities in Xinjiang used “free health checks” as a means to compile a genetic database of the region’s persecuted Uighur populace. People in Hong Kong are fearful their data will be compiled by Beijing, too.
“Every time [the government] does something, people have conspiracy theories,” Lam said on Friday, denying that data will be collected or shared with China’s central authorities.
According to Nip, the samples taken to test for COVID-19 will not be used for any other purpose, will not be transported outside of Hong Kong, and will be destroyed within a month. The bottles carrying the swab samples will contain no personal data, either, besides a serial number identifying the patient.
Why is testing needed?
Mass testing has been carried out in other places as a means to tackle the coronavirus. In the first months of the pandemic, South Korea’s test and trace methods were widely praised as exemplary, demonstrating how the technique can reduce transmission by isolating the infected and other potential carriers from the general populace. If done effectively, testing and tracking can help avoid lockdowns.
And in May, authorities in Wuhan, China, tested 6.5 million people over 10 days, identifying over 200 cases. Residents were compelled to participate. Roving medical workers made house calls to test people with restricted movement and visited construction sites to test migrant workers. The sweeping tests allowed the city where the pandemic began to relax after months of intense lockdown.
In Hong Kong, where many people are still commuting to work and going about their regular routines, some advisers are skeptical the testing system will be quick enough to prevent further transmission. Other critics suggest the initiative is arriving too late. Hong Kong’s daily case numbers have dramatically reduced from the third wave’s peak—dropping from over 140 at worst to just nine on Monday.
The mass testing could help open up travel options for people in Hong Kong, however. The local government is in talks with neighboring Macau and Guangdong province to develop a health code app—similar to those used in mainland China—that would allow residents who have tested negative for the coronavirus to travel across borders without the need to quarantine.