Countries where the Covid risk still exists

  • people walking in the streets of Hong Kong
    Bumble Dee /
Published on 2023-03-08 at 10:41 by Asaël Häzaq
There have been rumors since the end of 2022. Then John Lee, the Special Administrative Area's (SAR) Chief Executive, confirmed the news. Hong Kong is finally back to "normality". The wearing of masks is no longer mandatory for Hongkongers. Still, the mask is still strongly recommended in high-risk areas. Hong Kong is one of many countries to go by this preventive statement, reminding their populations of the importance of keeping the good practices acquired during the COVID crisis. Because the health risk still exists, and no country is immune.

Caution is recommended, although masks are no longer compulsory

Since March 1st, the mask is no longer mandatory, including indoors, outdoors and on public transport." Chief Executive John Lee's statement marked Hong Kong's transition to a new phase. The country, one of the last to maintain the wearing of masks as a measure against COVID, is finally joining the rest of the world. At the beginning of February, the government launched a communication campaign named "Hello Hong Kong!" to boost tourism. The announcement came as a relief. Spring is coming, and professionals from the sector are smiling again as travel agencies hope to welcome tourists.

And what about the residents? Even after the announcement, it looked like the habits were here to stay, and many Hongkongers preferred keeping the mask for safety reasons. In Hong Kong, like in all East Asian countries, the mask is not a new phenomenon. Unlike in Western countries, where it has been at the heart of a heated debate, people in Hongkong were not opposed to wearing masks, as they already know their virtues. However, they are relieved that masks are no longer a legal obligation. It has been almost 1,000 days since masks were made mandatory both indoors and outdoors for everyone over the age of 2. Violators risked a fine of 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($US 10,000). 

By removing the mask requirement, Hong Kong is taking another step towards normality. In recent months, the City-State has lifted several restrictions. In September 2022, it abolished mandatory quarantine for international travelers. In December, it relaxed most of the other restrictions.

Most of Hong Kong's population is vaccinated

Although justified in the early days of COVID, vaccination was no longer compulsory in early 2023, as most of Hong Kong's population was fully vaccinated. To date, 93.71% of the population is fully vaccinated (2 doses). 83.9% have received a booster shot (3 doses). People of most age groups are fully vaccinated: 79.09% of 3–11-year-olds, 99.77% of 12–19-year-olds, 98.04% of 20-29 year-olds, 99.78% of 30-39 year-olds, and even 100.39% of 40-49 year-olds. The 50+ segment is also mostly vaccinated: 96.9% of 50–59-year-olds, 88.85% of 60–69-year-olds, 83.21% of 70-79-year-olds and 70.03% of 80-year-olds and over.

The 3-dose vaccine is also achieving excellent results, with 80% or more for the 20-79 age group and 90% for the 40-49 age group. The 80+ age group is vaccinated at 64.56%, the 12-19 age group at 77.41%, and the 3-11 age group at 31.58%. These excellent results make Hong Kong one of the vaccination champions and are one of the main reasons why the executive decided to relax most restrictions. 

In addition to the high level of vaccination, there is also the “herd immunity” effect that has probably been induced by several Covid waves. The last peak was recorded at the beginning of the year, with an average of over 20,000 cases per day at the height of the crisis. The zero Covid policy demanded by China resulted in saturated hospitals, which were already crippled by an unprecedented Omicron wave. The last major crisis of this type was recorded in early 2022, with an average of over 60,000 cases per day. You will recall that the zero Covid policy has been increasingly criticized, both in mainland China and in Hong Kong.

Does the end of barrier gestures around the world mean the end of COVID?

The explosive resurgence of cases following the abrupt end of the zero COVID policy in China has been a cause of stress for the entire world. The scientific community recommended a gradual exit to prevent a boom in cases and deaths. Some political scientists are of the opinion that Beijing might have voluntarily chosen this modus operandi to sanction the population following the waves of demonstrations in the country.

And now? Three months after the end of "zero Covid", the Chinese government rejoiced at how it managed the whole situation, but as we all know, the propaganda is well polished. In fact, the number of deaths has been minimized (Beijing no longer communicates its figures since December 2022). The government has been cautious not to talk about the fate of its provinces after 3 years of the pandemic. Not a word either about the silent revolt of senior citizens against health insurance, which was accused of reducing their reimbursements. The main argument is economic recovery while sweeping away the stigma of the crisis. Officially, therefore, "it's business as usual". 

But the obligations are still in place in China. Foreigners still need a negative PCR test to travel there. It's also worth noting that the country has not yet resumed the regular issuing of tourist visas, "except in specific cases".

In countries where mandatory sanitary measures have been lifted since the beginning of 2022, one might think the virus is gone forever. Sweden, Denmark, England, Israel, and the Czech Republic were among the first countries to totally or partially abolish the health pass. Other countries have been more progressive, such as South Africa, Morocco, Switzerland, and Spain. One year has passed, and contamination levels are very low – the above-mentioned countries are no longer experiencing any Covid wave. However, this does not mean the end of Covid because the health risk remains.

No country is totally safe

That said, the situation in France is quite interesting. In March 2022, the country abolished the health pass and the mandatory wearing of masks. Since then, it has been facing more or less significant epidemic rebounds, with more than 100,000 cases per day on average in the spring and summer of 2022 and more than 50,000 cases during fall and winter. On the other hand, 2023 started out smoothly, with an average of 3,500 new cases per day. Faced with the ever-present risk, the authorities called on the population for common sense. Although wearing a mask is no longer mandatory, it is still strongly recommended in public transportation, crowded spaces, hospitals and medical centers, and in the presence of fragile people. In the beginning, doctors thought that the health crisis would provoke a reflex to wear a mask in case of illness. If it were as widespread as in East Asia, the mask could have helped reduce epidemics of influenza, gastroenteritis, and bronchiolitis.

Most countries took a similar approach. Masks are no longer mandatory as governments get seriously concerned about public discontent. Instead, they are calling for common sense, repeating the same guidelines over and over again: wash your hands properly, cough into your elbow, avoid hugging when you are sick, or wear a mask whenever the situation requires it. In Canada, the importance of wearing a mask to fight epidemics is being emphasized. Like in France, Canadian authorities recommend wearing a mask in the presence of fragile or sick people, in crowded places, etc. In fact, barrier measures are here to stay for quite a long time, just like the health risk.