Hong Kong’s Zero Covid policy faces critical test of Omicron leap


AsiaWorld-Expo, a convention center near Hong Kong International Airport, was once described as an exhibition facility. The vast expanse is now a horrific quarantine center after being seized by the government as part of its “zero Covid” policy.

Some of the center’s patients, who sleep in beds separated by transparent screens and withstand constant lighting and loudspeaker messages, become so desperate to go out that they gargle with hand sanitizer in vain to neutralize the test results, according to one a man stuck there.

“People rinse their noses with hand sanitizer, people are ready to do anything to get out of here,” said the patient, a student.

Patient despair is only on par with that of the Hong Kong government as it seeks to maintain its policy of eliminating Covid-19 altogether despite Omicron’s aggressive outbreak that threatens to crush the defense of the Asian financial center.

Hong Kong on Monday confirmed 614 cases, a record for a city with no locally transmitted infections for most of last year, prompting authorities to note tougher measures for social distancing as early as Tuesday.

“The situation with the local pandemic is extremely difficult,” Food and Health Minister Sofia Chan said on Monday.

Zero Covid’s policy, which is also in place in mainland China, is attributed to saving lives and preventing the collapse of hospital systems seen elsewhere. Although unpopular with many immigrants due to travel restrictions, it has allowed much of the city’s population to lead a pre-pandemic lifestyle for most of last year.

But the latest outbreak, which began in December, has raised questions about the sustainability of the strategy. Although deaths are still low at 213 since the beginning of the pandemic, doctors are worried that the outbreak could endanger the elderly in the area. Only about 20% of people over the age of 80 have had two vaccinations.

“The government will not give up. We will continue to do everything possible to achieve zero Covid, “said city leader Kari Lam on Friday.

Ironically, the latest outbreak has forced the government to reluctantly ease some of its toughest policies because it is depleting patient accommodation and close contact with the infected.

International visitors arriving in Hong Kong, or locals who test positive for Covid, are usually placed in isolation in a hospital for at least 10 days. They can then be released from the ward only if the test is negative twice within 24 hours, a process that can take up to a month.

But as hospital and quarantine facilities are under pressure from the latest outbreak, the government last week eased its extremely stringent polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing requirement so patients can leave the hospital.

Prior to that, when discharged from the hospital, people also had to spend another two weeks in a quarantine center such as AsiaWorld-Expo. Now this can be done at home, with the government using quarantine centers for asymptomatic cases while hospitals are filling up.

Quarantine for those with a positive test is particularly difficult due to the uncertain release date. “I’m falling apart,” said a teacher in Hong Kong who is still in hospital after landing in Hong Kong 17 days earlier. “We are not aliens, we should not be pointed out.”

Health officials confirmed to the FT that a four-year-old child who tested positive for the virus was separated from his mother in early January for a short period of time. The child was subjected to mandatory quarantine in Hong Kong for people who had close contact with a positive case when she began to show symptoms of Covid and was transferred to hospital. At one point, nurses found the child wandering the hallways alone. Eventually, she reunited with her family.

Hong Kong also applies ambush in many apartment blocks when Covid is detected in sewage tests and publishes long pages of lists of sites that have been exposed to Covid cases, requiring whoever has visited those sites to be tested.

A resident of a multi-storey apartment that was locked, Jun Chu, was stuck in her 300-square-foot public apartment with her husband, two kindergarten-age children and her mother-in-law. “In principle, there is no room for movement,” she told the FT. The mother expected that the family could lose up to a quarter of their monthly family income from not working during the blockade.

The new restrictions should hurt more Hong Kong’s economy, which is already under pressure in part due to an outflow of talent following the political unrest of 2019. Inflation is another threat. Vegetable prices rose more than 20 percent over the weekend, according to a wholesalers’ association, after two truck drivers tested positive.

Still, the outbreak is unlikely to stop authorities from pursuing Zero Covid.

“Zero Covid can still be achieved, but then much more effort will be needed,” said Leo Poon, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. “This is a decision that the government must make.”

A government expert recently told local radio that once Hong Kong reached a 90 percent vaccination rate and met other conditions, it could adopt an “exit strategy”, including easing social distancing measures.

However, Beijing remains committed to the policy of zero Covid, with senior Chinese health official Wu Zunyou saying relying on vaccines alone cannot control the virus.

China’s Xinhua state news agency said Hong Kong’s abandonment of policies would jeopardize the city’s economy and public health and delay the long-awaited reopening of its mainland border for ordinary travelers.

Despite the difficulties, many Hong Kong residents also seem to still support Zero Covid. “This is the sacrifice that people like us must make for a better way of life for the people of Hong Kong,” said Judy Soetjiptadi. The executive director of the exhibition, he gave a positive test after a trip abroad and was in isolation for 27 days when he spoke to the Financial Times.



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