Walking around Kennedy Town, Sai Ying Pun, Sheung Wan and Central, one sees an increasing number of shuttered shops, closed businesses and a bewildering variety of “special offers” to entice custom. The lack of tourists seems to have hit Hong Kong businesses hard.

Locals are more careful with spending given the spectre of unemployment – now 5 per cent – as uncertainties linger over when the Covid-19 nightmare will end. Official retail figures show the general malaise gripping the city; it must not become a downward spiral. We are perhaps at a crossroads where choices made now may have profound consequences later.

In Hong Kong, competition for customers is as intense as it is desperate but the richness of the consumer base has been eroded. The problem is exacerbated by a significant net outflow of expats who are voting with their feet.

This is bad news unless you are attempting to rent or enter the housing market, where prices are falling. We risk entering a cul-de-sac of broken dreams, dashed expectations and lost talent as demoralising travel restrictions, draconian quarantine measures and social distancing rules take their toll.

The recent rule changes are welcome, but for many they are too little, too late while others fear they could reverse under the next chief executive. There is little confidence we are emerging from this Covid-19 “groundhog day” any time soon.

The lost expats are often well-paid people who have helped oil and grow Hong Kong’s complex business machinery while, at least partially, keeping many shops afloat in the tourist desert.

There is also the serious effect on many famous food and beverage haunts frequented by expats. Lan Kwai Fong, once the beating heart of the expat entertainment industry, is now on life support. Young, local business elites also contributed to the scene, giving the place an exciting, cosmopolitan vibe and were often involved in the establishment of new F&B ventures.

It is sad to see it brought so low. It is part of Hong Kong’s attractiveness as an exciting place for global talent to live and work when combined with the low-tax, high-reward dividends such elites enjoy. Their lives are a million miles away from the vast majority, but without them there would be no prosperous Hong Kong to feed us all.

A sense of what is being lost is also seen in the world-famous Hollywood Road and “Cat Street” where the social unrest and pandemic have had a devastating effect on the antique shops, tourist knick-knack outlets and bric-a-brac stalls. Its character is rapidly shifting as many traditional shops have closed forever due to the lack of tourists and buyers.

These are some of the effects of Covid-19 policies, which while protecting us for two years, unravelled with the Omicron wave and risk our global status as businesses move their offices elsewhere – particularly to Singapore.

Our competitive edge in international finance and trade is being eroded as talent is lost and promise unfulfilled. Hong Kong has held onto its third-place ranking of the world’s leading international financial centres, published in March, but the data used was from before the fifth wave hit the city and flight bans were implemented.

The bans have now been lifted and some confidence may return if this endures. The government has been walking a tightrope between the competing needs of protecting public health and safeguarding Hong Kong’s value as a global finance, trade and transport nexus, the latter being the most seriously affected so far.

Looking back allows us to learn but we must move forward too and fight to regain our competitive edge. Hong Kong needs to adapt rapidly to the post-Covid-19 reality and try to avoid more self-inflicted wounds to an already battered economy.

The West is emerging from the pandemic, and activity was picking up until the Ukraine war began in late February, another self-inflicted calamity that could have been avoided. We must navigate this latest crisis with dexterity and nous.

If damage caused by a brain drain is not to percolate through society, it must be reversed. The lost talent had expertise, experience and international connections vital to the financial and entrepreneurial health of Hong Kong, as well as to its competitiveness with Singapore, Shanghai, Frankfurt and others snapping at our heels.

While we have much home-grown talent to be proud of, plus talent from the mainland, Hong Kong is a global city, and talent is an international commodity that we have successfully nurtured, traded and consolidated for decades.

We must remember this, and seek to protect it so we can move forward and grasp the opportunities in the Greater Bay Area and globally as the world emerges from the pandemic.