$5,000 “reward” for getting COVID-19: A peek into Collectivism in Hong Kong

On the 22nd Nov (2020), as Hong Kong was faced with yet another wave of Covid-19 outbreak with numerous cases with undetermined source, the government announced a $5,000 one-off incentive for all people who tested positive to Covid, aimed at encouraging people to take Covid-19 tests by relieving concerns on loss income in quarantine. The government faced immediate backlash against the proposal, as the public teased the non-means-tested subsidy meaningless. Non-selective, Non-targeted, Non-sufficient. Rather disheartening, but understandably, sarcastic comments about the proposal flooded the internet, with many saying they’re would purposefully get Covid-19 for the 5K “reward”. There is little discussion around whether the amount is sufficient for the unfortunate in desperate needs. Anger and disappointment, instead of empathy and compassion, was elicited by the announcement. However, as always, public discourse has to be viewed in the larger picture, as cross-sectional observations could only depict a snapshot of the undercurrents. The attitudes towards the persons in power in Hong Kong is massively polarised. It is hard to identify the root cause of distrust in the population, to disentangle poor governance, questionable response to Covid-19, and more. It could have been the case that no matter how well-planned the proposal would be, it would not be well-received in the public eye. Sparing myself from the politics (today), this blog will try to shed light on how conceiving the subsidy as a “reward” tells us about how collectivism remains defining a cultural feature of people of Hong Kong.

“Reward” – a potential reason of the disapproval may stem from the sense that the government is using a monetary reward to degrade what is a moral responsibility. That is, one should have the obligation to seek treatment if one might have gotten Covid-19, and that one should be doing so regardless of situation or social economic hardship. This is a defining feature of collectivism, where the cohesion and benefit of the community is placed before the individuals. This was also demonstrated in the 99% populational surgical mask (not whimsy cotton masks) usage in Hong Kong in the first 3 weeks of the pandemic. Whilst it is true mask wearing has been a socially acceptable behaviour, and it is also true that Hong Kong people still aches from the scars SARS left not long ago, both of these reasons are indications of the care for community weigh over individual inconvenience, that collectivism run in our veins.

If this notion of a degrading “reward” stands, we’d expect a similar level of dissatisfaction from the community if we were to say, an incentive was introduced to encourage mask-wearing. Perhaps another way of seeing it, would be the lack of compensation to the public comparing to the extent of economic activity loss in Hong Kong, but dissatisfaction did not reflect through poor adherence to guidelines. This could explain that strict social isolating measures were well-tolerated, such as 14-day mandatory quarantine for inbound overseas travelers, mandatory quarantine camps for people who had close contacts with confirmed cases, school closures etc. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated city in the world, housing 7.4 million people, thus highly susceptible to mass outbreak. Yet compared to the England capital of 7.5 million people, London has 25 times the number of Covid-19 infections (30th Nov figure), whilst being 30% larger than Hong Kong (in km2), and Hong Kong’s infinite times closer to the first identified cases of Covid-19. Outbreak risks would have been considered negligible in the UK parliament were faced with measures no tier could match, and welcomed by its people. This is a price Hong Kong people willing to pay for the community.

This is a price Hong Kong people willing to pay for the community.
This is a price Hong Kong people willing to pay for the community.

Collectivism is a treasure in a contagious virus outbreak, but it does not come at no cost. The benefit of the community do not always align with the benefit of all individuals. Whilst this do not necessarily always translate into the deprivation of individual freedom, this is the case regarding Hong Kong Mental Health Ordinance (MHO). The MHO is the legislation in Hong Kong that gives medical practitioners power to assess and treat patients with mental incapacity, including intellectual disability (the legal terms were loosely defined). MHO resembles the Mental Health Act (MHA) in the UK. Conditional Discharge (CD) is part of the MHO, it refers to

A legal provision that mandates a person with mental illness who meets certain criteria to follow a course of treatment while living in the community, non-compliance of which may result in a recall to inpatient treatment (Cheung, 2017)

Without going too much in detail, CD is similar to Community Treatment Orders in the UK & Europe. CD could be issued based on a”disposition to commit violence”. In Hong Kong, approximately 2.5% of all patients with severe mental illness are put on CD. There is no limit to the length of CD, and their liberty could be stripped away when the patient was deemed to pose risk of harm to self or others. There is no strong international nor local evidence that CD achieved what it proposed. In a naturalistic cohort of 140 people under CD, only 5% had any forensic contacts after 12 months – meaning the vast majority of them has restricted freedom, and this would continue be so indefinitely. CD could be appealed via Mental Health Review Tribunal, yet there is no available data on the number of people applied or success rate whatsoever. Patients were often left stranded with no money, knowledge and power, when public stigma against mental illness disproportionately weighed in the legal system. I have only scratched the surface on the topic, pleasure to have been inspired by Prof. Daisy Cheung (Hong Kong University) in our chat. Please do follow her series on pragmatic suggestions on mental health law reform. (Twitter @daisytmcheung)

Countless challenges awaits Hong Kong people, as a collective. The search for post-colonial identity, diverse but discriminatory, greedy but generous, together but torn. The love for our community runs in our veins, it is a moral value we proudly upheld in times of crisis. The way forward is not naming, shaming, segregating and excluding, but appreciating unity in diversity, pushing for change without loosing respect for each another. As we share the love for the same community, we shall then share our honor, our pride, our misbehaves, our history, and only then, we can shape our future – collectively.