Hong Kong epidemic shows the limits of zero-Covid – but the government does not budge
That’s the question facing Hong Kong officials now, as daily infections top 4,000 and old security systems begin to buckle under the strain of their own hardline rules.
For nearly two years, Hong Kong has relied on a combination of strict quarantines and sophisticated track-and-trace efforts to isolate positive cases, keeping the city relatively virus-free — even as the rest of the world began to relax restrictions.
But these measures no longer seem sufficient in the face of the latest Omicron wave, which officials have called a “tsunami”.
Hong Kong’s insistence on sending all positive cases to hospital, regardless of severity, has led to at least one hospital being so overwhelmed that it has been forced to move patients on stretchers outside , lining them up in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, a series of tightened restrictions and targeted lockdowns have many experts and residents questioning the sustainability of such an approach as the city enters the third year of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the unusual step of directly appealing to Hong Kong officials to take “all necessary measures”, according to comments published in two Chinese state-run newspapers.
Xi’s intervention raised fears that new restrictions similar to those seen in mainland China, including a possible citywide lockdown, could soon follow.
So far, the local government has firmly ruled out such a move, suggesting it would be impractical to impose it on a city of more than 7 million people. But Xi’s comments make it clear that Hong Kong has no choice but to adhere to China’s Covid zero hardline strategy, whatever the cost.
The biggest epidemic to date
The new wave began in January and quickly spiraled out of control despite increasingly desperate efforts by authorities.
In mid-January, the government killed more than 2,500 hamsters and other small animals after a single Covid case was linked to a pet store, sparking widespread public outrage.
In retrospect, it was a harbinger of chaos to come and of a government unequipped for a wave of this magnitude despite having had more than two years to prepare.
Authorities have reimposed a series of familiar restrictions: closing schools, bars and public spaces, suspending restaurants beyond 6 p.m. and limiting public gatherings.
Many government rules have been drawn up with the zero Covid goal in mind, such as hospitalization of all who test positive for Covid – regardless of their condition – and compulsory testing for anyone who may have been exposed.
These rules may have worked when Hong Kong was only dealing with a few dozen cases at a time – but the scale of the latest outbreak has pushed them to breaking point.
As of Monday evening, seven of Hong Kong’s 17 public hospitals had reached or exceeded 100% inpatient bed occupancy, leading to impromptu outdoor wards, which could pose a problem this weekend with rain and expected cold temperatures. Long queues stretch across the city, with people waiting for hours to get tested.
But rather than consider different approaches, the government dug in, more determined than ever to get back to zero cases.
“Right now, we still believe that (dynamic zero-Covid) is the best strategy for Hong Kong,” Lam said last week – referring to a new etiquette that aims to quickly suppress all outbreaks.
Even before Xi’s reported instructions, China’s central government stepped in earlier this week – perhaps growing impatient with Hong Kong’s inability to bring the virus under control on its own.
China will send health experts and medical supplies to Hong Kong and help build new quarantine and isolation facilities, officials said – recalling the temporary hospitals that were built and operational within weeks in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic, at the start of it all.
Lam hailed the central government’s support, admitting on Tuesday that Hong Kong was struggling to cope with the exponential growth in cases. “The problem we face is that given the scale, pace and severity of this fifth wave, it has exceeded our capabilities,” she said.
A growing gap
Although Hong Kong has aligned itself with Beijing in the pursuit of zero-Covid in hopes of reopening borders with the mainland, it could have taken a different path – one currently unfolding in a very similar city, 1,600 miles (about 2,600 kilometers) away.
Last August, Singapore – which for years has vied with Hong Kong for the title of Asia’s top international business hub – was among the first Asian countries to declare it was moving away from a zero- Covid to live with the virus instead. It was soon followed by Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and others.
The atmosphere in Singapore is now radically different from that of Hong Kong. A high vaccination rate and reopened travel with two dozen countries means daily life has more or less resumed. Although cases are also increasing, people can go to the cinema, meet friends at the bar, even attend sporting events and live concerts.
The few remaining restrictions – like caps on social gatherings – could also be lifted soon when the Omicron wave subsides, the health minister said on Monday. “Like most Singaporeans, I’m looking forward to it,” he added.
But there is little of that optimism in Hong Kong, with defiant leaders even as the city’s strict travel restrictions make it increasingly isolated from the world.
“With the full support of the (Chinese) central government, the united effort of the government and the full support of the citizens, we must fight this wave of the virus,” Lam said on Tuesday. “Giving in to the virus is not an option.”