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Apocalyptic Anxiety – the Current Covid Crisis in Hong Kong, Part Two

Elderly waiting on gurneys in the rain and cold for hospital admission

By William Stork

President Xi Jinping was equally alarmed at how his Hong Kong was being presented in the world press, especially as he is trying to consolidate his position before the upcoming October Chinese Party Congress plenum where he is looking to get a historic third term.

He remembers the ineptitude of Carrie Lam and her government in dealing with the protesting activists that were destabilizing society, calling for independence, with violence daily getting out of control. Calm and stability came about only after Beijing stepped in with its National Security Law. Activists and democracy-leaning politicians went under cover, went into exile, or went to jail.

Now Xi Jinping again acted decisively with a brief, blunt statement — that Carrie Lam and her government needed to prioritize control of the Covid surge. Carrie Lam, taken a bit by surprise, jumped into action and made a short fawning speech thanking President Xi for his ‘care and concern.’

Then, perhaps under Chinese direction, she moved the upcoming chief executive election from mid-March to May 8, still coyly avoiding any indication that she might run for a second term. (I wonder how much of her actions and inaction is related to that election.)

There was much discussion in the local press as to whether Xi’s blunt statement was a warning salvo or whether it was an expression of confidence. What it did, though, was to make the government and the overwhelmed healthcare system realize that the only way to move forward was to ask China for help.

This was China’s plan, to take over HK’s response to Covid: to swiftly build quarantine, isolation and treatment facilities; to plan for citywide test processing by sending hundreds of mainland medical lab technicians; by getting fresh food supplies shipped by sea to ease the shortage in the city; insuring a supply of medicines and PPE; arranging for a massive supply of rapid response test kits.
Already inflatable labs for assessing tests are being constructed,

with lab technicians arriving from China to begin work on assessing the backlog of Covid tests.

As it was Xi Jinping that had instructed mainland officials to assist in all ways possible, the dutiful Carrie Lam responded by personally going to the checkpoint to personally welcome the arrivals. Said she, “We will definitely focus on the president’s instructions, taking all necessary measures and mobilising all resources. We won’t be distracted by anything else.”

Some mainland personnel have already traveled to Hong Kong with more arrive to help boost testing capacity, establish makeshift medical facilities, and do an expert review of HK efforts

But already HK health officials say the numbers are too few.

The Chinese assistance is visible with workers from China building additional quarantine/isolation facilities, and also a new hospital in the New Territories. Again, is it a case of too little, too late?

Quarantine cells from scratch. The facilities are expected to provide up to 17,000 isolation units for quarantine. Quarters for 70, 000 are anticipated

The government has ‘encouraged’ the local property tycoons to turn over their nearly completed residential blocks to be used for additional cases requiring isolation. But local health officials here are still saying, “not enough”. The government is now rumored to be eyeing college dormitories for cases requiring isolation.

As the number of cases continues to double every three days. China officials are advocating that Carrie Lam issue a total lockdown, like those employed in China. She is probably correct in thinking that residents here would not take to this too well, and in an election year she is trying to avoid doing so.

Instead, as China has promised millions of Rapid Response Test kits, Carrie Lam has announced that all schools will have an early holiday, the government planning to use all classrooms as sites for a March testing all of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population: the government to administer the first test, the participant being given an N-95 mask and Rapid Response Test Kits to twice self-administer over the rest of the week. The public response to this has been one of confusion and negativity. Local health experts insist that such testing should best wait until signs emerge that the Covid seems to be waning.

But just imagine the logistics of getting so many HongKongers to school classrooms to get tested and then to have the whole process completed within one month! Anthony Wu, head of Hong Kong’s testing facility, said that even more lab techs would be needed. If all 7.5 million inhabitants are to get a first test in March, will the assistance from China suffice?

But that is only one battle. Global headlines are dominated by the invasion of Ukraine, but that has not delayed the local ‘war on Covid’ swamping the healthcare system and effectively shutting down business and crippling other daily life. As many as 50,000 small businesses are predicted to shut down. That’s about one in seven registered small businesses, and there could be more, said Danny Lau, chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association. What a huge punch to the city’s economy already suffering from the 2020 closure of borders and the resulting lack of tourism that had accounted for 40% of H K’s income. “They don’t have any income. Zero income,” Lau said of those business owners. “The worst thing is you cannot see the future,” Lau added. “We don’t know how long these restrictions will last for.”

Pedestrians pass tents on Hong Kong street (Bloomberg)

Yes, there is a dank feeling of fear for what the future hold. H K’s society, once threatened by protests, now has another critical challenge to its stability. There have been confused and angry grumblings about the mass March covid testing and about the requirement that all residents now need to show a ‘vaccinated’ green light on their smartphone app to visit public venues, even including food markets.

In a timely presentation of its new Hong Kong budget, Financial Secretary Paul Chan [I am betting on him becoming the next Chief Executive] announced a HK$170 billion (nearly US$22 billion) plan directly related to combating the effects of the virus challenge.

Included were salary and property tax breaks, cash handouts to those unemployed since January, grants to struggling businesses, a six-month moratorium on rental payments, and others. What got the most attention was the announcement that in April the government would begin sending $10,000 e-vouchers to residents’ smartphones. Even this, though, got a now unsettled populace pushing back, claiming that they would rather get cash. Despite the financial ‘sweeteners,’ life here remains quite grim and nerve-racking, especially with the new stronger and more vaccine-evasive variant BA.2 beginning to take its hold on Hong Kong.

If that were not enough, there have been troubling unanticipated consequences: with no anticipatory plans to deal with the virus, Covid has been sweeping through the prisons and correctional institutions of Hong Kong. Now even 1 in 7 of correctional services personnel are out-of-duty either with the virus or in isolation/quarantine; employers are illegally firing overseas domestic helpers who have tested positive and dumping them homeless and

penniless on the streets; mortuaries are unable to accommodate the daily increase in dead bodies

Facilities for storing dead bodies at hospitals and public mortuaries in Hong Kong are at maximum capacity due to a record number of covid fatalities as officials battle to control a surge in cases

China, taking no chances with the inept Carrie Lam, has sent their number one Covid expert to ‘supervise’ (run) the operation here as hospitals continue to be overwhelmed.

February 28: elderly positive cases waiting outside hospital for admission/care

In an election year Carrie Lam has been resisting the total lockdown policy/practice of the mainland. Two days ago, the rumor surfaced that the China expert had asked her to move her planned March mass testing to April and institute a 9-day lockdown. An already ennerved public immediately formed long queues of panicked buyers at markets and pharmacies.

Food shelves were quickly cleared. Though the government now says there will be no lockdown, yet with a fearful populace, huge worry and uncertainty remains.

A further and recent unexpected consequence has been the number of expatriates trying to flee Hong Kong. On 28 February, the American Consul General of Hong Kong/Macau personally sent an incredible email, pledging assistance to Americans here, including the provision of air transport to the U.S. and also promising personal arrangements at private facilities for the Covid test needed one day before arrival in the USA and required by airlines. (Getting results back from the government’s testing system would take too long.)

Incredulously, he also assured citizens, even if their passports had expired in the last fourteen months, that he would guarantee their acceptance by airlines and by US Immigration. The U.S. State Department has since issued a travel advisory placing Hong Kong on a Level 4 alert status.

According to passenger traffic data, total of 94,305 left city in February, while only 22,681 people arrived. The net outflow was five times greater than January’s. Switzerland and Germany are arranging charter flights home. Cathay Pacific and Emirates are arranging special flights to London and Perth and to London and Lisbon.

A team of experts at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) expects the fifth wave to continue to worsen, peaking “in the coming week or so” at nearly 183,000 infections per day, although officials are only likely to be able to confirm 35,121 cases due to testing constraints.

With just 7,100 beds, pooled from public hospitals and isolation facilities set aside for Covid-19 patients, thousands of new daily cases continue to quickly push the public health care system beyond its limit. Based on the latest official data, the South China Morning Post estimates about 11,000 infected people are still waiting in the community to be admitted to hospitals or isolation facilities. With the standing practice of sending every positive case to government-run isolation facilities, confusion over instructions for suspected cases remains widespread. Anxiety runs amok and mental health is an increasing problem; in the past 24 hours there have been 4 suicide attempts at quarantine facilities. Suicides tend to become contagious.

Yet China remains confident that its massive assistance efforts and its imposition of new restrictions and policy procedures will save the day. Nevertheless, on March 2 Hong Kong crossed the 55,000 mark for daily infections and still doubling every three days.

As so often in a time of crisis, it’s hard to nail down exactly what the truth is and where it will lead. Nevertheless, might all this China confident assistance and resulting government effort provide for a cathartic morale boost? … and will it be enough, soon enough? March 7 update: Over this past weekend, a ranking Chinese official lashed out and berated the local officials for not helping enough, implying that they are lazy and inefficient. The air is fraught with political tension with the public distraught. The apocalyptic anxiety remains.

Did you miss Part One? It is here.

Sources: Nikkei Asia, Japan Times, SCMP, New York Times, Reuters, Nikkei Business
Photo credits: Hong Kong Free Press, Bloomberg, SCMP, HK Standard

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