Epidemic relief not a substitute for addressing key issues
This article appeared originally in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on 8 April 2020.
Authors: Amy Liu, Managing Editor at Our Hong Kong Foundation
The government should not ignore pressing issues in housing, innovation, health and education despite a focus on relief measures outlined in the Budget.
The collective sigh of relief that greeted the HK$10,000 handout to each permanent Hong Kong resident in the latest Budget earned Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po and the government a much needed reprieve. But the populist move at the time of the COVID-19 epidemic is scarcely mitigation for Chan’s reluctance to address many pressing issues that are hampering the community. Though Chan said government expenditure will continue to increase to address livelihood and development needs, we believe there are areas the government has room for improvement.
The long wait for sub-divided flat tenants
Among the worst affected by the epidemic are tenants of sub-divided flats, where some 210,000 Hong Kong people call home. They have to cram inside shoebox-sized units to prevent getting infected in public areas. These sub-divided flats are often found in old buildings with rundown or dubious drainage facilities, which could increase the risk of spreading the virus. The question is: has the Budget done anything to help these people move closer to their dream of moving into public housing? The epidemic has highlighted the dire situation the housing and land shortage brought, despite the government’s plans for the medium to long term. Chan said 210,000 units are in the pipeline from developments in Tung Chung East, Kwu Tung North/Fanling North, Yuen Long South and other projects. In terms of public housing, more than 100,000 units are to be built within 2019 to 2023, with nearly three quarters being rental public housing. While tenants of sub-divided flats may have high hopes from these developments, we are not optimistic about the actual supply, because of the difficulties in finding land to build.
The Budget indicates that 135 plots of land had been rezoned over the past six years, at an average of more than 20 plots per year. But in reality, our research showed only three plots of land had been rezoned in the past year. As for medium to long term housing supply, there is a worrisome trend that first intakes in many new towns and new development areas are often delayed, whether it is the Tung Chung East new town or Yuen Long South. As a solution to our land shortage problem, we believe the government should seriously look into the potential of developing over a hundred hectares of brownfield sites.
Mega research institutes for better research
Meanwhile, there is still no effective medicine that can treat COVID-19, but new scientific developments such as big data and AI could help to speed up the development of vaccines. The latest health crisis reminds us of SARS in 2003, when global health experts, including those from Hong Kong, joined hands under the leadership of the World Health Organisation to research on the virus and its cure, which played a key role in halting the crisis. The international cooperation for SARS is a model we should take seriously. In order to promote cooperation in health technology, the Hong Kong government is already building the InnoHK Clusters. The Budget notes that, with enthusiastic responses from internationally renowned institutions, the first batch of research institutes could be established within this year, while the setting up of a third research platform is being explored. However, with the fast changing global developments, we believe it is necessary to establish mega research institutes similar to Broad Institute in the United States and Francis Crick Institute in Britain. This will enable cross national and interdisciplinary interactions at many levels, resulting in more cutting edge research achievements.
Primary health care offers helping hand
Chan also mentioned that the epidemic has affected the mental heath of some Hong Kong people, and the government will provide support to those affected. We believe mental healthcare should be part of our overall fight against the epidemic, as well as an integral part of overall primary health care in the long term. The city’s first District Health Centre(DHC) was set up in Kwai Ching last year, with more to be opened in six other districts at a cost of HK$650 million. The Financial Secretary has allocated HK$600 million to establish interim “DHC Express” in 11 other areas. We believe it is important to have a blueprint and timetable for these regional health centres, while it is equally important to promote more cooperation among various health resources to empower our fight against diseases.
Practical training helps future career
During this epidemic, our shortage of doctors and nurses has been chronically exposed. Just as our health professionals are overloaded, our meetings with patient groups revealed the painfully long waiting time they face. The Financial Secretary mentioned about employing retired doctors, but we believe the government should also provide specialist training for non-local doctors to ease the long queues from health bottlenecks. As they face increasingly harsh working conditions, many nurses are leaving the health sector. We also understand from patient groups there is a view that the nursing profession is not working optimally, and there is a need to strengthen the practical training of nurses, as nursing degree courses tend to more academic. In additional to the nursing degrees offered by government funded universities, the government should also help to finance the self-funding tertiary institutions to offer more practical and flexible degree courses for the nursing profession.
For young people, the Budget announced the government will increase the number of internships to 5,000 in 2020/2021, so that they can gain valuable experience in government and public organisations. We believe applied education should be more widespread to provide students with vocational training while studying, which will also help them in finding a job.
Overall, the Financial Secretary has made the popular move to give a much needed HK$10,000 cash handover to beleaguered Hong Kong citizens under the epidemic. But that is not enough. It is imperative that the government should properly address pressing issues in housing, innovation & technology, health as well as education in order to earn the sustained support of the community.