From: [email protected] <[email protected]>
Sent: Monday, 28 February 2022 7:12 am
Subject: Community Message from Consul General of Ireland
On this last day of February, I am writing to address the many concerns arising in the community in recent weeks regarding this recent wave of the pandemic impacting Hong Kong in the most devastating way possible.
The reported cases of parents being denied access to children for sustained periods in a hospital setting and the premature closing of schools have caused distress and grabbed much of the recent headlines. However, our overwhelming reaction as a community is one of empathy for Hong Kong people as they are facing into an enormous loss of life in this wave of the pandemic.
Let me outline how the pandemic will likely impact our community in the coming weeks, as well as providing guidance on how our small but dedicated team in the Consulate General of Ireland can support citizens in this difficult time.
It’s not an expat exodus
First, let me address the undertone of some of the recent commentary. Ireland is one of the larger European Union communities in Hong Kong. While some of our citizens made their home in here in recent years, many are here since the 1960s and indeed others are second and third generation Irish. We can date the first Irish footsteps on Hong Kong island to 1816!
While most of citizens in Hong Kong have availed of “rights of abode”, however, paths to citizenship are difficult and rarely pursued, not least because of the requirement to surrender Irish citizenship in the process. Nonetheless, our Irish community in Hong Kong are important stakeholders, and for the vast majority, Hong Kong is their home and they do not know any other home. One in six of our citizens in Ireland were not born on our island. Just as that doesn’t make them less Irish, the Irish community here are hongkongers! So Hong Kong’s pain is our pain!
But I can confirm that our Consulate has never experienced this level of demand for consular services for those wishing to leave Hong Kong at present. However, I’m disappointed that this is being labelled in some quarters as an “expat exodus”. These are Hong Kong residents of all nationalities making an unenviable and deeply traumatising choice to leave their homes, their jobs, their friends and family!
Pandemic Developments in Hong Kong
The choice by many to leave – either temporarily or permanently – is not surprising. The pandemic situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated in a shocking and unprecedented manner in recent weeks. Through 2020 and 2021, Hong Kong had experienced a minimal number of cases (12,677) and deaths (213). Indeed, as Hong Kong residents, we have been spared some of the worst excesses of lockdowns by comparison to family and friends in Ireland and throughout Europe. We recall being moved by videos of people across Italy singing from their balconies in an effort to keep up morale, scenes that were replicated across Europe. Only essential workers were allowed to travel to work and only essential shops (supermarkets and pharmacies) remained open.
Indeed, the pandemic story in Ireland is best summarised as:
Lockdown in 2020 to protect our vulnerable population;
Deployment of vaccines in 2021 starting with the most vulnerable; and
Transitioning to a post-pandemic normality in 2022 (witness scenes of 50,000 in the Aviva Stadium yesterday to see Ireland play rugby).
Since January 2021, Irish government action regarding the severity of the lockdown has been predicated on just two metrics – vaccine administration and pressure on acute hospital services. Just 10 days ago, on 18 February last, An Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Micheál Martin, announced that National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) is to be stood down as we transition to a post-pandemic normality. We do not have “zero covid” in Ireland, nor are we pursuing a “zero covid” policy. What we have, is a fully vaccinated and well-boosted population and an acute hospital system focussed on the small number of the infected that are in need of hospitalisation.
Hong Kong stands in sharp contrast to the experience at home and is now in the throes of a deadly pandemic wave significantly worse than anything that Ireland or the rest of Europe has experienced in the past two years. As of today:
Cases in this wave have surpassed 190,000 (some 15 times the total for 2020 and 2021 combined in just a matter of weeks);
There have been 570 reported deaths since 10 February (almost 3 times the total for 2020 and 2021 combined in just 18 days)
The relatively sheltered experience of the pandemic in Hong Kong has been washed away in dramatic fashion and it still remains to be seen how far away we are from peak infection rates and fatalities. The pace at which this wave has taken hold is genuinely shocking.
Front Line Medical Workers
Medical workers have been on the frontline of the pandemic fight for an arduous two years. Now they face into months of trauma and exhaustion in battling this latest wave. This has already taken a personal toll on many. As of Monday, there were 3,160 infected medical workers. We trust they are vaccinated and make a speedy recovery.
I regularly stroll through the SARS memorial in Hong Kong Park. It’s a salutary reminder of ultimate sacrifice made by some medical work in defending public health. We count a number of Irish citizens among the Hong Kong medical workers fraternity and wish them and their colleagues and families well in the challenging period ahead.
Impact on Elderly and Vulnerable
As of today, 580 Residential Care Homes (RCHs) have reported incidences of covid, with 865 staff and 2,900 residents already infected. Unfortunately, the vaccination rate for elderly persons has been persistently low. Irish citizens are also numbered among the residents in RCHs as well as categorised among Hong Kong’s “elderly” population. A government spokesperson acknowledged recently that some 500,000 people aged 70 or above still have not yet received their first dose of vaccine. In this regard, there is a deep foreboding across society over what the coming weeks will bring and, for the Consulate, we are extremely concerned for this vulnerable segment of the population.
On a personal note, I have been in direct contact with a number of our citizens, including our seniors, families of some citizens in RCHs and some immunocompromised citizens. I know that some of you have also done the same. As Consul General, the care and attention you have extended to the vulnerable members of our community that have dedicated their life to Hong Kong has been heart-warming. This spirit of compassion is needed now more than ever if Hong Kong is to sustain itself in the coming weeks and months.
If a spirit of compassion is to prevail, then this is clearly a moment for society to rally together, not to apportion blame. In that regard, I am deeply disturbed by some of the reporting trying to scapegoat individuals and businesses for this latest outbreak of the virus. We just need to look to our Dutch neighbours and their renowned parable of the finger in the dyke to understand that when there’s a flood, the “finger in the dyke” is just a temporary solution until help arrives.
Let me put on record my appreciation for a segment of the community who have been at the forefront of the pandemic resistance for the past two years. A number of our community in Hong Kong are employees of Cathay Pacific. Some have been furloughed, some have lost their jobs, but, for others, they have been flying cargo routes non-stop for two years now in the most challenging of circumstances. Their unstinting service in the most difficult of circumstances has significantly mitigated the economic impact on Hong Kong businesses during the pandemic and kept supermarket shelves stocked. Many citizens have recounted stories of what felt like an “interminable” period of time (just 2/3 weeks) in hotel quarantine on return from travel. Contrast that to some of our pilots and cabin crew, who have spent up to 300 days in quarantine/isolation since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Government Response to the Pandemic
In response to this deepening and deadly wave of the pandemic, the government last week has set out a series of measures designed to return to a “dynamic zero infection” situation. The Government clearly stated that its policy has been mandated by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping. Within that framework, the overriding mission of Government in the coming two to three months, is to:
Step up efforts in the “early identification” and “early isolation” to cut virus transmission chains;
Adopt triage measures in patient treatment to reduce severe cases and deaths;
Strictly preventing the importation of cases at boundary control points;
Further tightening social distancing measures to significantly reduce people flow and prevent virus spread;
Increasing the vaccination rate, especially among the elderly and children.
However, in advising Irish citizens in Hong Kong, we have to be realistic. No jurisdiction has ever returned to “zero covid” from an outbreak of this scale. We recall that Wuhan – a significantly larger city than Hong Kong – only had roughly 50,000 cases in total. This wave in Hong Kong is already almost four times larger and growing by the day. To those in the Irish community who have been vaccine hesitant, therefore, I have this simple message:
Ignore the aspiration of a return to “zero covid” … It will not protect you!
Do not hide away hoping this wave will go away … Please consult your doctor, trust science and get vaccinated!
I acknowledge the deep anger and frustration in the community over the continued pursuit of a “dynamic zero covid” policy. However, I am duty bound to point out that all residents, Irish included, are subject to the laws of the jurisdiction they reside in. We would urge citizens to follow guidelines set out by the Government. If in doubt, consult the Government’s dedicated pandemic website. Please have a healthy degree of scepticism about advice on social media, which can often be contradictory and misleading.
I also ask you to recall the many bereavements in Ireland over the past two years. Inappropriate expressions of anger and frustration is not what our neighbours, friends and work colleagues here in Hong Kong will need as they face into the trauma of losing their loved ones in the coming weeks.
While your anger and frustration runs deep, I also need to clarify that the role of the Consulate is not to be a political actor in Hong Kong or “pseudo opposition party” in challenging government policy. We are here to provide consular services and assistance for our citizens and, when appropriate opportunities arise, we reflect the sentiment of the community in our dialogue and communications with the government.
In this regard, I want to assure the community that the Consulate has significantly stepped up our diplomatic engagement and coordination with others on pandemic related matters. We have also increased our reporting to Dublin on developments in Hong Kong to ensure a pro-active response as events unfold.
To ensure continuity of service, the Consulate has adopted a blended working approach of time in the office and working from home arrangements. We are also not immune to pandemic developments and, at one point last week, we were reduced to just one officer of five being able to work from the office. For citizens looking for consular services or assistance, please email [email protected]. This is the best method we have to ensure a timely response. While our public counter remains open, please email to book an appointment in order to ensure that we can implement proper cleaning protocols between customers. For customer peace of mind, we have also installed a Novaerus product designed for continuous air dis-infection.
Compulsory Testing / Separation of Children
The Hong Kong Government announced that it will implement a Compulsory Universal Testing (CUT) scheme in March, under which all citizens must undergo three rounds of COVID-19 tests. This will involve setting up hundreds of testing centres across the city for people to undergo three mandatory COVID-19 nucleic acid tests, with a view to identifying asymptomatic patients in the community. Those who do not comply with the compulsory testing requirement will be subject to penalties.
Despite the announcements there is a lack of clarity on what CUT will mean for our citizens. We have read disturbing stories of some Hongkongers testing positive and being banished to roof tops in the bitter cold and rain to avoid infecting family member in their small dwellings. Clearly, the availability of isolation facilities will be of considerable relief and provide proper patient care in such circumstances.
Despite the rapid construction of isolation centres, temporary hospital facilities and the acquisition of additional hotel rooms, however, it is clear there will be insufficient facilities for all who will test positive in the coming period. We have urged the authorities to continue allow those – not in need of urgent medical treatment – to isolate at home until they recover.
In the past two years, the Consulate has achieved some small concessions from the Department of Health on the matter of child separation when supporting Irish families in difficulties. Given the overwhelming pressure on the hospital system at present, regretfully, we cannot provide the necessary assurances to Irish parents on this matter of huge concern in the community. Ireland, along with our European and other diplomatic colleagues, however, will continue to press the authorities on the issue of family separation, especially in relation to the more vulnerable children and those with special needs.
If citizens find themselves in this unenviable situation, please reach out and request consular assistance.
Impact of Travel Restrictions / Passports
For those intending to travel, we have seen a significant increase in passport applications. In that regard, I would like to remind citizens that:
Passports are valid for entry into Ireland until the date of expiry;
Where passports need to be renewed, please do so early through our Passport Online system;
First time passport applicants, should email [email protected] and we will arrange for the application form to be sent to you.
The Passport office in Dublin are aware of the current challenges facing citizens in Hong Kong and are offering as much flexibility as possible in issuing passports in specific circumstances that traditionally would not have met the criteria for an emergency issuance.
Not even the herculean efforts of my small team, however, can overcome some of the logistical challenges of getting a passport book printed in Ireland to Hong Kong. So please apply in plenty of time prior to travel.
For those leaving Hong Kong with the intention to return in a matter of weeks, I ask you to be cognisant of the evolving situation regarding travel restrictions. Many Hong Kong residents have been stranded overseas for months due to rolling flight bans. The Consulate can offer no assurances on whether the availability of flights will improve or whether quarantine on arrival rules will change for better or worse. We have also seen the impact on flights due to Russian military action in Ukraine and the closure of Russian airspace.
Light at the end of the Tunnel
The Chief Executive recently noted that “Hope propels a society forward”. The clear feedback from Irish citizens and friends in recent times is that for the community to feel that hope, light needs to be seen at the end of the tunnel. The Consulate, along with our diplomatic colleagues, will continue to push for a vision or roadmap for a transition to normality, a normality which sees a return to international conferences, a return to quarantine-free tourism, a return to a busy airport, a return to full stadiums and a return to thriving business sector.
But we need to be realistic, as the protection of life is paramount at this critical juncture.
At this deeply painful time for Hong Kong, let me turn for hope to the music of Anita Mui Yim-fong. An outstanding singer, Anita helped create the glory years of Hong Kong pop music scene in the 1980s and 1990s. But this daughter of Hong Kong used her star power for good during the SARS outbreak in 2003 despite struggling with deteriorating health which would see her die that December, just 40 years of age.
Charitable work and social activism were important to Mui Yim-fong throughout her life – values that are important for Hong Kong now more than ever. So let us remember a former time when the spirit of the Hong Kong people prevailed in the hope that Hong Kong people will again prevail.
似水流年 Years Flow Like Water
远景不见 但仍向着前 My heart’s weary, I watch the sea
Tears and words come not to me
My heart’s a tangle, I watch the sky
Troubled thoughts they flood my mind
My heart’s a raft, a plank adrift
The future unseen, but onwards I heave
Please stay safe and protect the vulnerable at this difficult time.
Consul General 28 February 2022
Good for him.
Still think HK is going to keep attracting Intl. business like it did before Shri?
I will be leaving as well... Singapore is my first choice, unfortunately SG has tightened their visa policies. Company lawyers are now exploring our options. I will be closing the HK/Regional office around June.
We are opening clinics in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, so I might move there. Although not a fan of either cities to live in for long... Been there 100s of times for work, which is ok, but to live, not 100% sure.
It's a shame... I've been here for 8.5 years (haven't applied for PR yet, not sure If I actually will do it). This city has changed a lot, not only because of COVID, just the overall atmosphere. It went downhill around 2016 - 2017, at least that's my experience.