Feud erupts in Hong Kong as health experts spar over Covid-19

Patients outside Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong on March 2, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG - A public spat between the former head of Hong Kong's public hospital network and government officials has erupted over the severity of Covid-19, reflecting deep divisions among the city's elite over how to handle the pandemic.

The debate escalated on Friday after Dr Leung Pak Yin, former chief executive of the Hospital Authority, criticised the slow pace of the city's reopening process on social media.

Restoring open international borders is a global trend and what residents are asking for, he said.

"Some people are still dragging their return-to-normal feet," Dr Leung wrote in a Facebook post. "If it is not a misjudgment of the epidemic, it is unknown whether there are other purposes."

Hong Kong has some of the strictest Covid-19 measures in the world, requiring people to wear masks at almost all times and sending travellers into hotel quarantine for days after arrival to ensure they are not incubating the virus.

Still, it is grappling with thousands of new infections every day and suffered through its biggest outbreak this spring, with more than 9,000 deaths occurring in 2022.

The comment was one in a chain of updates Dr Leung has written on the topic of returning to normalcy. He sparked the conflict after calling out a data point Chief Executive John Lee referred to on Tuesday, saying Mr Lee was mistaken in stating that Covid-19 is six times as deadly as the flu.

While the officials were using the death rate since the start of the year or the beginning of the pandemic in their calculation, Dr Leung said an improvement in immunity levels since the outbreak in March and April has significantly reduced mortality from Covid-19.

The latest crude death rate for Covid-19 since May is 0.098 per cent, nearly identical to the rate seen with flu, he wrote.

Hong Kong's new secretary for health, Dr Lo Chung Mau, took aim at that argument on Wednesday in an official blog post.

Using only data from May to the present is not an apples-to-apples comparison, he said, and stressed that Covid-19 is by no means a flu.

"The death rate of Covid-19 and influenza will change due to virus mutation, which can be reduced or increased," he said. "Society's immune barrier will also weaken over time."

Calculating the death rate using only data since May is "a serious selective bias, ignoring the misfortune of thousands of Covid-19 deaths, and misleading the public", Dr Lo wrote.

The heated exchanges highlight the Scylla-and-Charybdis path Hong Kong is trying to chart as it works to revive its reputation as an international city. It has several high-profile events, including a banker's summit and a global rugby tournament, slated for later this year.

Officials still want to limit the spread of Covid-19 in the city, however, and ensure it does not become a threat to China, which maintains a zero-tolerance approach to the virus. BLOOMBERG

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