Benita Chick, the founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based social enterprise Encompass HK, previously busted some myths and outlined challenges to overcome for Hong Kong to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Now, she shares the additional obstacles that lie ahead for the city to ensure inclusiveness and equality in the midst of the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus grants us a pause to review our conduct. This generation has extracted too much from Mother Nature for its selfish comfort and convenience, caring less for future generations to come. This decade may be the last that Nature will allow us to correct our misdeeds – homo sapiens could go extinct by 2030 if we don’t change now.
COVID-19 does not discriminate, but it does impact individuals differently. Records so far shows that the most seriously afflicted are older people and those with underlying health conditions, and their carers – their loved ones and their health and social care professionals.
Leaving no one behind is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A clear commitment to inclusiveness is stated in the Agenda, in which Member States “pledge that no one will be left behind”, that dignity of the human person is fundamental.
The pandemic has exposed many shortcomings of Hong Kong – some of which are known but haven’t been addressed with priority, and others only unearthed in the most tragic times.
If the virus has taught Hong Kong any lessons at this point in time, it is that we must not regress to the status quo in observing the SDGs. Of all of the SDGs, one of the most important factors underlying the unhappiness of Hongkongers is financial inequality. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient – in which zero represents maximum equality and one represents maximum inequality – now stands at 0.539, its highest level in 45 years. By comparison, the highest Gini coefficient among major developed economies is 0.411 (in the United States).
This inequality is most starkly apparent in housing. The per capita residential space in Hong Kong is 16 square meters (172 square feet), as compared to 36 square meters (387 square feet) in Shanghai and 24 square meters (258 sq feet) in Singapore. Moreover, whereas nearly 45 percent of Hong Kong’s residents live in public rental or subsidized housing, 90 percent of Chinese households own at least one home.
Despite having fiscal reserves of more than HK$1.2 trillion (US$147 billion), the Hong Kong government has failed to address this very issue of financial inequality. Those affected the most are residents in subdivided flats, low-income workers, women in poverty, children in poverty, elderly in poverty and ethnic minorities.
Besides the problem of financial inequality, our over-stretched public health system has also been exposed. Prior to the pandemic, it had already been overworked as a result of decades of half-baked policies and bureaucratic management, leading to anxiety and distress to those who cannot afford private care. As the outbreak evolved, tardy crisis management has brought the vulnerable public system to near collapse.
The pandemic has additionally uncovered the previously played-down problems of the digital divide. Hong Kong’s disappointing performance during the pandemic on providing social and technical infrastructure to support online learning by underprivileged students, applications to manage orderly distribution of sanitary (face masks, sanitizers) and household (rice, toilet paper) necessities, technology to track people under quarantine – just to name a few – highlights the huge gap it has to mend.
What will Hong Kong be like after the pandemic? Wishful as it may sound, I think the ordeal will help to speed up the reduction of inequality.
According to The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, by Stanford University professor Walter Scheidel, four types of events can bring about such an improbable outcome: mass mobilization for war, total revolution, state and economic collapse, and epidemics and pandemics. To the surprise of many social activists, democracy doesn’t appear to play a role, Scheidel argued.
Such circumstances that trigger mass sufferings can galvanize solidarity and sacrifices – particularly from the rich who can afford to do more. Governments stepping in during calamities with radical social programs can then bring help that would otherwise be unavailable to the poor and the vulnerable. Another way to look at it is that this turmoil will hurt almost everyone financially and emotionally – and therefore humble those who have lived in relative comfort to feel the pain of frugality and despondence, leading to greater feelings of empathy for others.
Other than what the government can do, what role does the civic society play? With many non-profits are now in dire difficulty, this is an opportunity to explore establishing a community foundation in Hong Kong. Community foundations bring together financial resources of individuals, families, and businesses to launch charitable funds to support public charities that work on improving the lives of a local community. It will be a ground breaking start for Hong Kong’s social development.
There are also things that individuals and companies can do within their own capacity to help to alleviate the inequalities in society during the pandemic.
1. Be a Good Citizen – Stay Home
The best thing you can do for the community now is to stay home, and practice social distancing if you must go out. The infection rate is peaking, and the underprivileged inn society are the most susceptible. You can play your part in protecting the community by not going out.
Volunteer groups are making reusable cloth masks for underprivileged communities, such as the Table of Two Cities that works with refugees, and the HK theatre groups. Join one of them to serve the community first hand.
Donations can be made in many forms. You can give monetary donations to a charity, or donate masks and sanitary products. Consider donating to a charity regularly, especially during this time as many under their care are suffering from the pandemic. Other than hygiene products, you can also donate food and other daily necessities to help those in economic difficulty. Be generous.
Hong Kong’s image as a peaceful, flourishing, world class financial centre has been shattered by last year’s anti-extradition protests. Now coming under further deterioration due to the pandemic, restoring the image of Hong Kong will be an even more arduous task. And we haven’t yet begun factoring in calamities unleashed by climate change or global socio-political events beyond our control.
To avoid heading towards an abyss of no return, it is high time for us to take action on the deep-rooted issues that have impeded society from sustainable growth. Once the epidemic subsides, the anti-extradition social unrest currently somewhat stupefied will most certainly blaze up again. A congruous society is imperative to advancing development – reforming the electoral system for more answerability and political equity is vital to stabilise society and help improve the government’s creditability.
Hong Kong must start to include SDGs in its future development blueprint. And as all governments have grievously learnt from the coronavirus, an inclusive ‘people-oriented’ approach to public finance and policy making is fundamental to maintaining and sustaining an enduring humanistic society.
Lead image courtesy of Reuters / Tyrone Siu / File Photo.