Three rounds of testing, chatter of Mainland-style lockdown . . .
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam today announced three rounds of compulsory COVID-19 testing for all Hong Kong residents in March as the city battles an unprecedented COVID surge. Residents will book their tests based on their birth years, with up to one million people testing daily in stations to be set up throughout the city. This comes after the government announced a vaccine pass scheme to limit access to high-risk venues, requisitioned more hotel rooms for quarantine, and extended a ban on flights to nine countries, including Canada. Reports also suggest Beijing has appealed for a Mainland-style lockdown of the city to stamp out the outbreak, though Lam has publicly called the idea “unrealistic.” Today, the city reported a record-breaking 6,211 confirmed cases and an additional 9,369 preliminary cases. Modelling suggests a peak in March could see over 120,000 daily cases if trends persist.
Hospital system overwhelmed . . .
The new measures indicate that the government intends to double down on its ‘dynamic zero-COVID’ policy, a term coined by Beijing to describe its expectation that Hong Kong strives to eliminate any outbreaks that arise. However, requiring the hospitalization of all infected patients has overwhelmed Hong Kong’s hospital system, already suffering from significant capacity problems before the pandemic. Patients have been left in hospital corridors and even outdoor parking lots during an unusual cold spell. Some local experts have called for allowing home isolation of those with mild infections to reduce the burden on hospitals. This will not help infected foreign domestic workers, many of whom have been abandoned by their employers and left homeless without government support, prompting warnings from the Philippine consulate.
Hong Kong’s – and Beijing’s – Omicron gamble . . .
The following month will reveal whether Hong Kong’s government can prove the effectiveness of a ‘zero-COVID’ approach under conditions worse than any previous outbreak in China. On the one hand, recent deaths of unvaccinated children and low immunization rates among the elderly illustrate the need for caution. On the other, historic levels of distrust in the government – and the appointment of the controversial former police chief as head of the city’s COVID task force – could make co-operation from residents difficult to secure. Thousands of residents and foreign businesspeople have fled the city for Mainland China or abroad, further swelling the exodus from the city and raising questions about Hong Kong’s future as an international hub. If Hong Kong succeeds in quashing this outbreak, however, it will demonstrate that ‘zero-COVID’ might still be possible under Omicron, albeit with significant sacrifices from residents.
- The Guardian: ‘No light at the end’: How Hong Kong’s Covid response went so wrong
- Hong Kong Free Press: Compulsory tests for all Hong Kong residents, schools to halt early for summer
- South China Morning Post: Nearly 70 domestic helpers lack any place for home quarantine after testing positive in Hong Kong following end of contract, NGOs say