Hong Kong is clinging to 'zero covid' and extreme quarantine. Talent is leaving in droves.

·7 min read
Aerial drone shot a Hong Kong Corporate Buildings streets (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

HONG KONG - Ellie May Paden, 26, came to Hong Kong over a year ago for a new opportunity and a budding relationship. Her LinkedIn page says she is "fortunate enough to be teaching English as a foreign language in a beautiful city," with a photo of the glittering downtown skyline.

Paden, who runs a side business selling scented candles, found herself isolated by extreme quarantine rules that require anyone returning from abroad to spend weeks in confinement at a cost of thousands of dollars, irrespective of vaccination status. She missed her grandfather's funeral and the birth of her niece, but she hoped that as vaccination rates rose, Hong Kong might open up.

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It wasn't to be. Paden is now selling her stock of candles and heading back to the United Kingdom before relocating to Canada, joining the swelling ranks of expatriates leaving Hong Kong over its approach to the pandemic.

"No other country takes it as far as three weeks," Paden said. "It is kind of insane."

With China exercising ever-tighter control over Hong Kong, the city is hewing to the country's strict "zero covid" policy extolled by Beijing as evidence of a superior political system. Yet the approach has largely cut off Hong Kong from both China and the world - a severe blow for a place that built its success on global connections. Even more than recent political changes, the authorities' refusal to adapt to living with the virus is eroding Hong Kong's viability as an international city, according to almost two dozen diplomats, chambers of commerce, recruiters, pilots and other expatriates.

The resultant brain drain is altering the face of the financial hub, which some Western companies now consider a hardship post, as fewer people are willing to take the places of those leaving. The number of overseas professionals and investors admitted to Hong Kong under its general employment program dropped from about 41,000 in 2019 to 15,000 last year and 10,000 through the third quarter of 2021, immigration data shows. With quarantine rules unlikely to be lifted within the next year, departures of foreign businesspeople and other expatriates are set to accelerate.

"The long-term damage has already been done to Hong Kong's viability," said one senior Western diplomat. "There is an absolute lack of predictability that businesses don't like."

Authorities have defended the approach, insisting on the need to keep the virus out - a goal health experts say is unsustainable - as they prioritize reopening to mainland China. The strict measures already included collecting stool samples from young children in hotel quarantine. This month, the omicron variant's spread led Hong Kong to further tighten rules, lengthening quarantines for most arrivals and threatening holiday travel plans with sudden flight bans for airlines that unwittingly bring in even a few infected passengers.

In a survey released this month, the British Chamber of Commerce found that 70 percent of respondents hoping to add staff in Hong Kong had encountered difficulties, with many citing quarantine restrictions.

"As the rest of the world opens up to international travel, there is a risk that Hong Kong will become increasingly isolated as an international business center," an overview of the results said, adding that senior executives were relocating to Singapore or Dubai, where borders are more open.

Jan Willem Moller, chairman of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, said that about a quarter of Dutch businesspeople have left this year, and that the departures would "increase significantly" if the quarantine rules stay in place. "Inflow has pretty much dried up, as well," he said, adding that colleagues at other chambers reported similar patterns.

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On the front line of quarantine restrictions are pilots, especially at Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific. Some have been on "closed loop" rotations, alternating between working and isolating for extended periods before they can reenter the community. On layovers, pilots and aircrews are forbidden to leave their hotel rooms, keeping them in a hermetically sealed bubble.

Cathay has occasionally tried to force hotels overseas to provide its pilots and aircrews with single-use card keys to stop them from leaving their rooms, two pilots said. Eight pilots spoke to The Washington Post for this report on the condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions from their employers.

"A lot of colleagues are at breaking point," said one pilot who resigned recently after more than 15 years flying for Cathay. "I'm tired, and I can't see the future."

At least 240 Cathay pilots have quit since May, according to employees who reviewed internal numbers. The carrier is reeling, with staff morale at "rock bottom" after hefty pay cuts last year and more departures imminent, several pilots said. In a statement, Cathay Pacific acknowledged that the regulations were a burden on aircrews, and said it plans to employ "several hundred pilots in the coming year."

"Our goal was to protect as many jobs as possible, whilst meeting our responsibilities to the Hong Kong aviation hub and our customers," the airline said.

Resentment spilled over last month when more than 120 students were ordered to a government quarantine camp known as Penny's Bay after they were deemed to be contacts of a pilot who was among three who tested positive on return from Germany. In a statement this month, the Oneworld Cockpit Crew Coalition, a federation of pilot unions from the Oneworld network, which includes Cathay, said the airline's pilots faced "untenable" working conditions.

One pilot who has flown with Cathay for more than 20 years said the exodus "is only just beginning."

"Another year, two years, three years or more of quarantine in Hong Kong and there will be almost nobody left. Some pilots haven't seen their wife and children for two years," the person added.

Tightened quarantine measures have led other carriers, including British Airways and Swiss International Air Lines, to suspend Hong Kong flights. Cargo operator FedEx said last month that it would shut its crew base in the city and relocate pilots over the next 16 months.

One FedEx pilot decided he could not wait that long and will leave permanently early next year.

"With pretty much every expert agreeing that unfortunately covid-19 is here to stay, what exactly is China or Hong Kong's end game?" he said.

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On top of the quarantine rules, Hong Kong temporarily bans flights by airlines found to be carrying at least four passengers who test positive for the virus on arrival. Qatar Airways, Nepal Airlines, Air India, Korean Air and Cathay Pacific routes from some cities are currently subject to bans, which are often announced with little warning, throwing travel plans into disarray. Three of these routes, including Cathay Pacific flights from London to Hong Kong, were banned just before Christmas.

Flight changes have prevented people from seeing dying relatives and complicated travelers' efforts to return to Hong Kong. A shortage of rooms at quarantine hotels has added to the frustration. Meanwhile, businesses including banks, media and restaurant groups have begun to pay staff thousands of dollars to offset the costs of quarantine, adding to the burden of operating in one of the world's most expensive cities.

"We understand that it doesn't make a lot of business sense," said Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, which is shelling out about $650,000 to help employees with quarantine fees. "But we heard murmurs that the rules will stay in place for most of next year, and so we knew we had to act."

The Hong Kong government has acknowledged the disruptions, but maintains that the regulations are essential from a public health standpoint and to allow the city to reopen to the mainland. China appears to have put those plans on hold because of the omicron variant.

Officials have tried to offer sweeteners in the interim. In an interview with local media, Eddie Yue, chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the de facto central bank, said that it had put together a team to deliver "wine and gourmet food" to quarantined finance workers in hopes of making them "less angry with Hong Kong."

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