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Hong Kong’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy faces critical test from Omicron surge

AsiaWorld-Expo, a convention centre near Hong Kong’s international airport, once described itself as an “Expotainment” facility. Now the vast space is a dreaded quarantine centre after being commandeered by the government under its “zero-Covid” policy.

Some of the centre’s patients, who sleep in beds divided by transparent screens and endure constant lighting and loudspeaker announcements, are becoming so desperate to get out they are gargling hand sanitiser in a vain bid to neutralise test results, according to one person stuck there.

“People are rinsing their noses in hand sanitiser, people are willing to do fucking anything to get out of here,” said the patient, a university student.

The patients’ desperation is matched only by that of the Hong Kong government as it seeks to maintain its policy of completely eliminating Covid-19 despite an aggressive Omicron outbreak that threatens to overwhelm the Asian financial centre’s defences.

Hong Kong on Tuesday confirmed 625 new cases, a record for a city that for most of last year had no locally transmitted infections, leading authorities to announce the toughest social-distancing measures yet including limits on gatherings at private homes for the first time. 

“The local pandemic situation is extremely severe,” food and health secretary Sophia Chan said on Monday.

The zero-Covid policy, which is also in force in mainland China, has been credited with saving lives and preventing the collapse of hospital systems seen elsewhere. Although unpopular with many expatriates because of travel restrictions, it allowed much of the city’s population to live pre-pandemic lifestyles for most of last year.

But the latest outbreak starting in December has raised questions over the strategy’s sustainability. Although deaths are still low at 213 since the start of the pandemic, doctors worry that the outbreak could endanger the territory’s elderly. Only about 20 per cent of those aged more than 80 have had two vaccination shots.

“The government will not give up. We will continue to do our best to achieve zero Covid,” declared the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, on Friday.

Ironically, the latest outbreak is forcing the government to reluctantly ease some of its strictest policies because it is running out of facilities to house patients and close contacts of those infected.

International visitors arriving in Hong Kong or local residents who test positive for Covid are normally placed in isolation in hospital for a minimum of 10 days. After that, they can only be released from the ward if they test negative twice within 24 hours, a process that could take up to more than a month.

But with hospital and quarantine facilities under pressure from the latest outbreak, the government last week relaxed its extremely rigorous polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing requirement for patients to leave hospital.

Previously, on discharge from hospital, people were also required to spend another two weeks in a quarantine centre, such as AsiaWorld-Expo. Now this can be done at home with the government using quarantine centres for asymptomatic cases as hospitals fill up.

Quarantine for those testing positive is particularly difficult because of the uncertain release date. “I’m breaking down,” said one Hong Kong teacher still in hospital isolation after landing in Hong Kong 17 days earlier. “We are not aliens, we shouldn’t be singled out.”

Health officials confirmed to the FT that a four-year-old child who tested positive for the virus was separated from her mother in early January for a short period. The child was undergoing Hong Kong’s compulsory quarantine for people who have had close contact with a positive case when she started exhibiting Covid symptoms and was transferred to hospital. At one stage, nurses found the child wandering the corridors alone. She was eventually reunited with family.

Hong Kong has also has been implementing ambush lockdowns on multiple apartment blocks when Covid is found in sewage tests and issuing pages-long lists of places that have been exposed to Covid cases, requiring those who visited these locations to get tested.

One resident of a high-rise apartment that was locked down, June Chu, was stuck in her public housing flat of about 300 sq ft with her husband, two kindergarten-age children and her mother-in-law. “There is basically no space to move about,” she told the FT. The mother expected the family could lose as much as a quarter of their monthly family income from missing work during the lockdown.

The new restrictions are set to inflict more pain on Hong Kong’s economy, which is already under pressure in part due to an outflow of talent after political unrest in 2019. Inflation is another threat. Vegetable prices rose by more than 20 per cent over the weekend, according to a wholesale merchants association, after two truck drivers tested positive.

Yet the outbreak is unlikely to deter the authorities from pursuing zero Covid.

“Zero Covid could still be achievable but then it would require a lot more effort,” Leo Poon, a professor at Hong Kong University’s school of public health, said. “It is a decision for the government to make.” 

One government expert recently told local radio that once Hong Kong reached a vaccination rate of 90 per cent and fulfilled other conditions, it could adopt an “exit strategy” including easing social-distancing measures.

Beijing, however, remains committed to the zero-Covid policy, with a top Chinese health official, Wu Zunyou, saying that relying on vaccines alone could not contain the virus.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said that were Hong Kong to drop the policy, it would jeopardise the city’s economy and public health, and delay a long-awaited reopening of its border with the mainland for ordinary travellers.

Despite the difficulties, many Hong Kong residents also still seem to support zero Covid. “This is the sacrifice people like us have to do for a better lifestyle for people in Hong Kong,” said Yudi Soetjiptadi. An exhibition executive, he tested positive after travelling abroad and had been in isolation for 27 days when he spoke to the Financial Times.

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