The controversies sparked by Covid-19 containment measures once again highlight the dilemma of choosing individual rights over public health, not only in Hong Kong but around the world (“Covid-19 in the US: putting the individual before public health makes no sense”, December 12).

Freedom of choice and personal autonomy are protected by law in free societies such as Hong Kong. However, in order to reduce social contact and infection among the public during successive waves of the pandemic, the government has implemented a series of restrictions on group gatherings and ordered businesses including bars and eateries to curtail or cease operations. Some bar patrons violated these prohibitions and duly received penalty tickets.

However, some people are also concerned that a focus on absolute individual rights weakens the effectiveness of epidemic prevention and control, and poses a threat to public health protection. According to this school of thought, individual freedoms cannot override the need to safeguard public health.

Indeed, individual rights are not absolute and social interests should be considered, especially in the event of a public health emergency like the coronavirus pandemic. It is true that such restrictions can conflict with social values. For example, when elderly homes in Hong Kong and elsewhere ban visitors during the pandemic, aged patients do not get to meet family members, which could harm their mental health and cause humanitarian concerns.

The Hong Kong Bill of Rights provides that people shall not be subjected to unreasonable interference with their “privacy, family, home or correspondence”,
hence safeguarding individual rights to maintain quality of life. Indeed, people attach importance to their own quality of life and have expectations of returning to normal life as soon as possible after the epidemic.

Nonetheless, in the past year, many workers have been forced to take unpaid leave or been fired outright, as businesses and the economy suffered repeated shutdowns or reduced hours. This has caused thousands to encounter livelihood difficulties. The repeated suspension of school has also hindered the learning progress of students, and drawn criticism from parents and educators.

However, absolute individual rights need to take a back seat in such unprecedented times. For the sake of public health and social stability, and to help the city emerge from the crisis sooner, restrictions on people’s daily lives, practices like working from home and online learning, and targeted containment measures have been and must be embraced.