Hong Kong’s universal testing wraps up with low turn out

Hong Kong’s universal COVID-19 screening program came to an end on September 14 after healthcare officials tested 1.78 million people. Authorities initially hoped that at least 4 million out of the city’s 7-million population would volunteer for the test.

After Hong Kong recorded a surge of local transmissions of COVID-19 in mid-July, Chief Executive Carrie Lam reached out to Beijing to help the city conduct a universal, voluntary, and free testing program of the city’s population.

Lam’s decision was criticized by medical experts who doubted the effectiveness of universal testing on locations that aren’t under total lockdown, which is the case of Hong Kong. Others pointed out that by the time the Beijing medical arrived in the city, in early August, the daily rate of new infections had already wained.

In addition, pro-democracy activists led a boycott campaign of the city-wide testing over fears of Beijing’s involvement in the logistics. Activists cited concerns over the possible collection of DNA data from Hong Kong citizens and the use of that data on a future health code system, similar to those implemented in mainland Chinese cities.

Lam dismissed all such critiques as “politically motivated.”

Hong Kong observers have argued that the universal testing would serve as thermometer of the city’s level of public trust. While Lam hailed the program as “a success,” her critics contended that the low turnout was a “symptom of a failed state.”

The test wasn’t mandatory, but local media outlets have reported that school teachers, civil servants, and employees of mainland Chinese companies were allegedly compelled to volunteer for the test.

The authorities have identified 32 positive cases, with 40 percent of them being “weak positives,” which means they aren’t contagious. The government hoped that the testing program would be able to identify at least 1,500 asymptomatic spreaders.

The cost of the universal testing was also the subject of controversy. In total, the program cost 1.42 billion HK dollars (approximately 183 million US dollars), with about a third of that shouldered by Hong Kong taxpayers. Around 70 percent of Hong Kong’s expenses covered wages of health care staff, according to Civil Service Minister Patrick Nip.

Beijing bore the rest of the cost by building temporary testing facilities, supplying testing kits, and processing results — the latter is the responsibility of Sunrise Diagnostic Centre Limited, whose parent company, BGI group, has been involved with building a gene bank in Xinjiang. BGI group is among the Chinese companies recently sanctioned by the United States’ government.

In the weeks leading up to the start of the program, adverts were run on pro-Beijing newspapers and TV channels urging people to volunteer for the free test.

Numerous news reports used language such as “mainland Chinese medical teams worked around the clock to safeguard Hong Kong people’s health.” Suspicious social media posts praising the testing program have also been spotted.

Here are a few examples found on a Twitter search of 全民檢測 (universal testing). The account @houpan123 tweeted on September 9:

You all see the result now. #universal testing has given Hong Kong a new look in 7 days. People wear a smile of victory on their faces. The “attack” of COVID-19 is not a setback for Hong Kong. It has aggregated a spirit to counter the current. With the presence of the central government to safeguard Hong Kong, and the responsible SAR government and the solidarity of people, #HongKong will overcome the epidemic and gain a victory.

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