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Apocalyptic Anxiety – the Current Covid Crisis in Hong Kong” Part One
By William Stork

“Outrageous!” says the populace and the media

Patients forced to wait for days outside for hospital admission in the rain and cold

When omicron swept into Hong Kong several weeks ago I began to notice something in the daily figures reported nightly by Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection (CHP). Hong Kong’s zero-Covid policy was under threat, for after nearly 3 months of zero local Covid cases followed by a few weeks of single digit reports, clusters started blooming. A few weeks ago 50 cases were reported one day. The next day it was 75. Then 150, 300, 600, and after a two-day plateau at that level it jumped to 760. Each day the region gets poised to have another big increase. We are now experiencing over 7,000 cases daily along with another 7,000 presumptive positive cases. Some of you know me as a historian, but I also earned an M.A, in math, and I could see that this growth was exponential with cases doubling every three days. At that time I said that I doubted if chief executive Carrie Lam and her government could deal with this surge. I well remember her difficulty in dealing with the protest activists two years ago and calm was not restored until Beijing stepped in with the new National Security Law.

Sure, people are concerned, and the government is asking people to get tested. They are eager to do so. But again, the government is unprepared,

with an inadequate number of testing centers available, and a booking system that fills up for the next month as soon as it is published. Walk-in centers cannot deal with the numbers desiring tests.

Once a person is tested, they then need to wait for the result. Here again, the government hasn’t fully anticipated the demand. The media reported that a twenty-five year old nurse recently became one of the patients her hospital had to turn away, after isolation wards, and later corridors, became over-packed with people on gurneys. She had to wait seven days to hear that her test was positive. By then she had already infected her father and probably countless numbers of colleagues and patients at her hospital. Yes, the government should have made arrangements for her to go to a quarantine facility. But the 500-bed conversion of AsiaWorld-Expo and the earlier constructed

Penny Bay facility are already at full capacity, as are the hotels that the government had contracted with for the 21-day isolation period for returnees to Hong Kong (at the individual’s expense).

The infected nurse went on to say, “”You keep adding beds, but not human resources.” [She declined to give her name, fearing repercussions at work.] “My colleagues are overloaded – one to dozens of patients.” Yet the hospital authority has indicated that it is ready to raise that number to one staff for 20 patients. At present there are 837 infected hospital staff workers. Regardless, Carrie Lam seems reluctant to do anything that might cause disfavor with Beijing. Following the mainland China position, Hong Kong aims to continue the ‘dynamic zero-Covid’ policy and to eradicate any outbreaks at all costs, officially still targeting all infections and close contacts for compulsory testing, treatment and isolation. About that the infected nurse said the goal is “impossible.” Transmission could not even be prevented inside hospitals, she points out.

A virologist friend from my pre-retirement days, one that helped unravel the SARS epidemic in 2002-03 says, “”It may seem counterintuitive, but in a Covid pandemic the last place we want infectious people is in hospitals, unless they really need treatment. We are already seeing a sharp rise in illness and isolation in healthcare workers. It seems inconceivable that the health system can continue for long without a change in strategy.”

Yet the CHP seems to be following Carrie Lam’s resistance to change tactics or strategy. While its method worked well for the Delta variant, it seems to be overwhelmed by the easily transmitted omicron, and now the new, more severe BA.2. Yet the government has seconded police squadrons (and their computers) to assist in the tracking procedures, a hopeless task.

“This is a big problem,” said David Chan, who heads the union Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, referring to people with mild or no symptoms showing up at hospitals. “The government messaging has been that Covid is a very dangerous disease … So, it is very hard to blame the people.” The government says it plans to ease the burden by building new isolation facilities and reconverting hotel rooms into quarantine space. But many front-line health workers say such measures should have been taken in anticipation of an outbreak rather than in response to it. For the past two years, Hong Kong could have encouraged elderly vaccination, increased quarantine capacity, and drawn plans to prioritize serious cases, keeping crowds with mild symptoms away from hospitals, doctors say. “There was no plan,” said Tony Ling, head of Hong Kong’s Public Doctors Association. “We are just unprepared.”

With the mathematics coming into play, again, it is not unreasonable to think that Hong Kong will have by the third week in March, a daily count of 36,000 cases.

Can anything be done about this acrid out-of-control disaster?

Sources: SCMP, Reuters, Washington Post, NYTimes, OT&P Healthcare
Photo Credits: SCMP, Reuters, China Daily, Bloomberg, Daily News, The Guardian

We welcome your comments below.

1 comment to Apocalyptic Anxiety – the Current Covid Crisis in Hong Kong” Part One

  • Sandy Avner

    It’s “deja vue” all over again.
    Bill, this was an excellent summary of a tragic situation in China. I hope that we have learned (although I doubt that there has been bipartisan integration of the US and Chinese experience) to anticipate and believe in science. You can’t cure stupid, though.

    The anti-vaccination movement here, and I suspect abroad, have provided a setup for the emergence of an epidemic of previously controlled infectious diseases in the US. Look for a return of smallpox, measles, mumps, etc…

    Thanks for keeping the focus on this important and threatening issue for the planet. It is the tip of issues that should have the attention of all who would try to prevent disasters.