Hong Kong yesterday launched a mass COVID-19 testing scheme, but calls for millions to take up the offer have been undermined by deep distrust of the government following China’s crushing of the territory’s democracy movement.
The free voluntary tests are part of an attempt to stamp out a third wave of infections that began in late June and saw the densely populated territory reimpose economically painful social distancing measures.
However, the program has been hampered by a limited response due to the involvement of mainland Chinese testing firms and doctors — and swirling public fears of the harvesting of data and DNA as Beijing cracks down on calls for democratic reform.
Since registration began on Saturday, 510,000 people have signed up — about 7 percent of the territory’s 7.5 million population.
About 10,000 people were tested yesterday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) said, including government ministers.
“It will help Hong Kong emerge from the pandemic unscathed and is conducive to the resumption of daily activities,” she told reporters.
However, health experts advising the government have said as many as 5 million people might need to be tested to comprehensively uncover hidden transmissions and end the current wave.
Hong Kong has recorded just more than 4,800 infections since the virus first hit the territory in late January, but about 75 percent of those cases were detected since the start of July.
“I am doing this for myself and for others,” Winnie Chan, a mother in her 30s, told reporters as she entered a test center. “I am confident and I support the government’s policy.”
Others said they had no plans to sign up.
“I think it’s a waste of time,” local resident Emily Li told reporters. “The government can’t convince me in terms of the effectiveness of the testing program.”
Authorities have billed the scheme as a benevolent public health initiative made possible with Chinese help.
However, the involvement of teams and labs from the mainland has sent the rumor mills into overdrive and compounded fears of Beijing’s surveillance state, which uses biometric data to monitor its citizens.
Some prominent Hong Kong health experts have questioned the efficacy of a mass testing program, arguing that more targeted monitoring of at-risk and vulnerable communities would be a better use of resources.
They have also raised concerns that the act of testing so many people might itself help spread the virus in a territory where emergency rules forbid more than two people gathering in public.
A group of pro-democracy politicians and lawmakers, including Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), have called on the public to boycott the test.
They voiced fears of mass DNA harvesting and concerns Hong Kong might introduce a mandatory health code system like those used on the mainland.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly rejected those concerns, denying DNA would be taken and insisting that no tests would go to mainland labs.
Lam has slammed those opposed to the testing scheme as “active anti-Beijing, anti-government members” who “will not spare any chance to create troubles and stir up confrontations even when it comes to a public health issue.”
Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office called those opposed to testing “anti-China radicals” with a “vile disregard” for public health.
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