In a place with fairly low levels of public trust in its leaders, Hong Kong’s top Covid-19 expert, Professor Yuen Kwok-yung or “Dr Ducky”, has become a most respected figure.
Known for his Donald Duck-style medical grade face masks, the professor is first on the scene at any outbreak in one of the world’s last “Covid-zero” holdouts. Reporters hang on his every word. He is so popular he has even been immortalised in adoring cartoons.
But his move to back the Hong Kong government’s abrupt culling of more than 1,000 hamsters and small animals, after two Covid cases were discovered at Little Boss pet shop, has been controversial. The professor has come under attacks so fierce that he has reportedly received death threats.
The professor has urged locals to understand his decision. There was a small chance that the hamsters — which came in two batches from the Netherlands — had been the source of the outbreak, he said, and there was not space to quarantine them nor time to wait in case they infected more people. “If this mutant virus is not stopped, it may spread to the whole of Hong Kong, the mainland and even overseas, triggering another disaster,” he said, according to RTHK, the government broadcaster. “More than half . . . of the elderly in Hong Kong are still unvaccinated, and if Delta virus flows into the community, more than 1,000 unvaccinated elderly people could die.”
News of the mass hamster sacrifice certainly shocked me — especially having flown back to Hong Kong just a few weeks earlier from Sydney, where people often told me to take off my mask as I “didn’t need it any more”. But I didn’t quite expect the level of backlash it has so far garnered among Hong Kongers, who until recently viewed the city’s elimination strategy as reasonably uncontroversial.
Tens of thousands have signed petitions, and pet owners are organising support groups. Unflattering memes of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, with hamsters in her mouth and videos of small children howling with grief are proliferating online, while pet lawyers are urging those affected by the cull to resist surrendering their beloved hamsters to the state.
Hong Kongers might not be able to march in the streets in protest or vote for opposition politicians any more, thanks to the heightened state of security imposed in the territory since 2019’s pro-democracy protest movement. But the outburst of fury shows that dissent is still not far below the surface.
It is hard to explain the anxiety about the virus here to those “living with Covid” overseas. Hong Kong’s official case tally is just 13,096, with 213 deaths since the pandemic began. While provoking anger, the cull has also ignited panic in other parts of the population, especially with the city’s experts not ruling out the possibility of animal to human transmission. One concerned group said they received inquiries from hamster owners about getting rid of their rodents within hours of the announcement.
“We urge pet owners . . . not to abandon their pets and to use normal hygiene measures when handling pets, avoid kissing them and wash your hands,” vets at the City University of Hong Kong said, as they insisted the risk of animal to human transmission was minimal. On Thursday, health authorities said they had found two more cases in hamster buyers.
Meanwhile, the government has “strongly advised” those who bought hamsters from December 22 onwards to hand theirs over to authorities to be “dealt with humanely”. Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, urged authorities to go further and force owners to give up their pets. “I have nothing against hamsters — except when they threaten the health of humans!” he told the FT.
The source of Hong Kong’s Covid-zero policy — the Chinese government — has also wrangled with a public backlash as the pursuit of elimination becomes tougher the craftier the virus becomes. In November, footage of health workers clubbing a Corgi to death after its owner was sent to government quarantine caused outrage across the nation.
Here in Hong Kong the hamsters might no longer be with us, but Yuen seems well aware that a fragile peace remains. “Science and medicine cannot solve the issue of love,” he said. “I deeply sympathise with hamster lovers.”