Hong Kong Struggles as Omicron Spikes

Omicron surge battering the city’s response capacity . . . 

Wednesday marked the third consecutive day of record-high daily case counts in Hong Kong, with over 1,600 cases, doubling Tuesday’s figure. In response, the city government has imposed the toughest restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic, including the unprecedented move to limit family gatherings, public or private, to only two households. City leadership attributes the surge in infections to Lunar New Year celebrations. Health and hospital chiefs continue to urge city residents, particularly the elderly, to get fully vaccinated or receive the booster jab with haste. At the same time, health officials advised residents suspecting infection or experiencing mild symptoms not to visit emergency rooms for testing or treatment, as they are currently overwhelmed and long wait times increase the infection risk.

“You have tried for two years, and failed” . . .

Hong Kong has rolled out mandatory testing in targeted communities, doubled fines for non-compliance, and forced asymptomatic individuals to isolate in hospitals and secondary contacts to quarantine in facilities that are quickly overfilling. Hong Kong’s public has also reached its breaking point, with some turning to social media to vent their frustration. On Facebook, an open letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam went viral, arguing current response measures had “failed” despite the high social and economic costs. Residents have also criticized Hong Kong’s insistence on zero-COVID policies when most neighbours in the region – such as Singapore – have resorted to living with the virus and focusing on vaccination and protecting the most vulnerable.

Zero-COVID still the path forward?

Lam has insisted that pursuing zero-COVID still makes sense for the city, motivated in part by a strong desire to re-open Hong Kong’s border with the Mainland. Beijing has supported Hong Kong’s decision. Nonetheless, the city lacks the capacity for city-wide lockdowns seen in Xi’an or Tianjin. Another issue contributing to the latest wave is Hong Kong’s relatively low vaccination rate among seniors. Less than 30 per cent of people over 80 and just under half of those over 70 have two vaccine doses. The city has struggled to incentivize vaccination, in part due to misinformation, but mainly because vaccination has not changed life under restrictions – a positive test can lead to further testing and quarantine, even among the vaccinated. Recent changes make it possible, but not guaranteed, to quarantine at home.