Hong Kong swamped by thousands of new coronavirus cases

Before this week, Hong Kong had completely avoided scenes like these since the first coronavirus case was detected more than two years ago. The city’s success in dealing with the pandemic – the highest daily toll of local infections recorded before 2022 was below 200 – was the envy of the world, as patients overwhelmed hospitals from New York to Jakarta.

But poor planning; lagging vaccinations, particularly among the elderly; and a failure of Hong Kong’s “zero-covid” policy has left the city and its 7.5 million residents vulnerable. While the rest of the world is starting to open up, Hong Kong is being swamped by an avalanche of new cases, with more than 4,000 recorded Wednesday. That number is expected to almost double by the end of the week.

For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, hospitals are beyond capacity, with wait times at emergency rooms up to eight hours. At one hospital designated to treat covid patients, a security guard at the outdoor triage area said people have been waiting up to five days to get coronavirus test results before they are sorted into isolation facilities.

Low morale is rife among health-care workers, who face tremendous pressure, a mounting workload and an increasing risk of getting covid. At least 290 of them have been infected in the past three days.

“It’s like we are playing Russian roulette and seeing who among us medical staffers test positive,” said David Chan, a front-line nurse at Caritas Medical Center and chairman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, a labor union. Some workers, he added, are too busy to eat or use the restroom while they monitor as many as 100 patients at a time.

Coronavirus infections and deaths are continuing to rise, mirroring the exponential spread of the more transmissible omicron variant seen in other parts of the world. On Wednesday, Hong Kong recorded 4,285 new infections, and 7,000 preliminary cases. Experts say this number underestimates the severityas positive results from rapid antigen tests are not officially recognized, and other people are probably skipping tests.

At least nine have died of the coronavirus in the past 24 hours, the latest victims include a 3-year-old girl and a 100-year-old woman.

Hong Kong follows what it describes as a “dynamic zero covid” policy, which broadly aims at getting local infections down to zero. This is in contrast to a strategy of living with the virus with a vaccinated population, a policy that is increasingly followed elsewhere.

This zero-covid approach is promoted by Beijing, which exerts strong control over Hong Kong’s local officials, and is the same one being implemented on the mainland. Reopening the border to mainland China, which has been closed for two years, is the stated goal of Hong Kong’s government. Plans to establish a quarantine-free “travel bubble” with Singapore were dropped after that city-state shifted to a strategy of living with the covid, and flights into Hong Kong are banned from several countries, including the United States and Britain.

Hong Kong’s strategy met its limit when the more transmissible omicron and delta variants began to spread more widely in the community, despite strict social distancing rules and draconian measures to limit international travel.

The situation in Hong Kong is evolving into an embarrassment for Chinese authorities in Beijing, which prides itself on controlling and managing covid outbreaks, and is in the midst of hosting the Winter Olympics.

Pro-Beijing media, which echoes the state’s views, have warned that losing the fight against covid could “threaten the safety of the nation.” The same outlets reported Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday urged Hong Kong’s government to stabilize the local pandemic situation, saying authorities there had the “main responsibility” for handling the outbreak and should prioritize controlling it “before anything else.”

In response to Xi’s comments, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would follow his instructions and “mobilize all available manpower and resources and adopt all necessary measures” to control the spread of the coronavirus. Over the weekend, Hong Kong officials traveled to the mainland and agreed to cooperate on various aspects of the pandemic, including enhancing testing capabilities and constructing isolation and treatment facilities.

The problem for Hong Kong, however, is that it does not have the resources and capacity to eradicate covid through heavy-handed lockdowns and population control the way other Chinese cities have.

Speaking earlier this week, Lam said there were “no plans” for a citywide lockdown, as seen in places like Xian and Wuhan. Admitting that the capacity of Hong Kong’s hospitals are limited, the government announced Sunday that priority admission to hospitals will be given to children, older people and those in serious condition, halting the unwieldy practice of hospitalizing all coronavirus-positive cases.

Authorities are planning to build a mega hospital, similar to hastily built facilities that cropped up across the mainland when the pandemic hit in 2020, but so far, they have just shortlisted three potential sites.

Experts inside and outside the territory say that Hong Kong’s approach simply will not work – on one hand, it is not restrictive enough to prevent the spread of covid, and on the other, not forward-looking enough to shift to mitigation and focus on vaccinations as a pandemic end-goal.

Ooi Eng Eong, an infectious-disease expert at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, said keeping with zero covid indefinitely is “not possible” and only makes sense if it is a measure to buy time to get the vaccines distributed.

Hong Kong’s elderly also have a serious vaccination problem – only about half of those between 70 and 79 and about a quarter of those over 80 are fully vaccinated. The official focus on zero covid had many thinking they would not need the vaccines.

Instead of focusing on vaccinations, city authorities kept ties to the outside world at an absolute minimum, neglected to boost hospital capacity and focused on scapegoats, like an ill-advised culling of the hamsters widely kept as pets because they might be a source of infection.

David Owens, founding partner of OT&P Healthcare, among the biggest private health-care providers in Hong Kong, wrote in a recent blog post that the “reluctance to consider scenarios other than a return to zero Covid is the antithesis of prudence.”

“Vaccinations work, and they are the only long-term solution,” he wrote, urging the government to acknowledge that zero covid is a “temporary state.”

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