Nicole Kidman's Hong Kong Should Be for Everyone
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Nicole Kidman's arrival in Hong Kong has created a stir, and not just because of her celebrity status. The city is alight with rage because the Hollywood actress was exempt from the territory's stringent quarantine rules. Instead of holing up in a hotel for 21 days, Kidman has been whisked around the city, busy filming scenes for a new television series.
Understandable as residents’ frustration may be, Hong Kong should have more exemptions, not fewer of them. Exercised impartially and reasonably, such measures could be a smart way to open up travel — just the pressure valve cooped-up city-dwellers need.
It’s fair to ask why Kidman should benefit from an exemption — as opposed to, say, a family of five with young children — and it isn’t entirely clear which one she qualifies for. Exceptions to the rule often create feelings of injustice. But while the actress has benefited from her special status, she isn’t the only one. Various permissions for all sorts of people have been in place for over a year. What makes Kidman any different from a director of a publicly listed company or a livestock importer living in the mainland? Both would also qualify.
Hong Kong’s exemption rules exist because this arrangement is “essential for maintaining the necessary operation of society and the economy, and for ensuring an uninterrupted supply of all daily necessities to the public," according to the territory’s Covid-19 portal. In their current incarnation, though, these measures seem more like arbitrary loopholes waiting to be exploited. (Since when was filming a TV series a "necessary operation"?) It’s worth asking whether the government has been able to define what these guidelines are supposed to mean for the city’s 7.5 million residents, when some of its Covid-prevention tactics end up causing more harm than good. Policy flip-flops have thrown travelers’ plans into disarray with little warning and consideration, and many families remain separated.
More sensible exemptions exist in other countries. In Australia, for instance, where borders are strictly controlled, students in their final years of study and foreign nationals whose entry may be in the country’s national interest can apply to get a pass. In parts of Europe, citizens’ family members qualify. In South Korea, vaccinated travelers can apply for quarantine exemption certificates for humanitarian purposes, such as attending funerals, which enable visits to direct family members living in the country. The U.K. offers a comprehensive list of essential worker jobs that get excused, including port workers, nuclear emergency responders, prison employees and those who have regular work abroad.
Each of these examples are distinct from Hong Kong in their fairness, safety and clarity. A set of well-defined exemptions that are broadened over time and introduced gradually could become an effective way to let more travelers in and out. Even small steps, such as excusing families with young children from staying in hotels, and instead allowing them to quarantine at home or in better-suited facilities with monitoring, and much-reduced periods for individual vaccinated travelers, would go a long way toward quieting resentment. Instead, Hong Kong has relied on stringent requirements and closed-off borders, creating bubbles of fear and anxiety. That isn’t a long-term strategy.
To be clear, those who get exemptions aren’t simply waved in. They are subject to testing requirements and activities are limited. Taking public transportation is prohibited and unnecessary social contact is to be avoided. Exempted people have to test negative before, on and after arrival. As of earlier this month, those arriving at land border control points are subject to testing on the third, seventh, 12th, 16th and 19th day after their arrival. These are good precautions, but there are still far too many ways to get around other important restrictions.
The territory is increasingly becoming a pressure cooker; vaccinated residents need the freedom to leave and re-enter. For all the trouble exceptions have created, a better way forward is to make them the rule.
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Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.
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