Port in a storm

Returnees bring spike in Hong Kong infections


Monitoring new arrivals

Hong Kong has been in the front line of the fight against the coronavirus since mid-January, doing remarkably well in ‘flattening the curve’ in new infections, perhaps because many of its residents remember the SARS outbreak, which killed 299 people in 2003.

Most of the effort has come from the grassroots, not from the government. Social distancing is difficult in such a densely packed metropolis but people have been disciplined in countering the virus by masking their faces in public and washing their hands often.

The measures have helped to stunt the rise in new infections – all the more impressive for a city on the fringes of the country where the outbreak started.

However, Hong Kong is also one of the region’s most international cities and that has been creating a new set of problems for its health officials. Large numbers of foreign nationals retreated to their home countries when the crisis started in earnest but over the last two weeks many have been coming back, realising that Hong Kong is now the safer place. That has brought a spike in infections, with the tally more than doubling in a week, mostly from imported cases, including students who returning from Europe and the US.

The mandate is that the new arrivals must wear trackable bracelets and self-isolate for a minimum of 14 days. But some returnees have been flouting the rules, with pictures on social media showing them in shops and restaurants.

Public anger at the quarantine breakers has also spilled over into frustration at those who aren’t wearing facemasks in public, many of whom are foreign nationals.

Local newspapers have lambasted expats for wandering around without their faces covered; pictures of angry graffiti asking ‘Hey You Gweilo! [Westerner] Are you too poor to buy a mask?” have been doing the rounds on social media.

Photos of bars full of customers (often Western-looking) have sparked further fury, especially when a clutch of new infections was tracked back to revellers in Lan Kwai Fong, one of the city’s best-known entertainment districts.

The media coverage led to an announcement this week from Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, that restaurants and bars would be prevented from selling booze, although they have been permitted to stay open. In the press briefing Lam was tearful in talking about how medical teams had fought against the virus, before insisting that every resident had a part to play in preventing the pandemic from spreading.

“If a community outbreak occurs due to a small group of people who deliberately violate our home quarantine rules to go out to play and eat, how can these people face our frontline medics?” she asked.

Also this week, Hong Kong closed its borders to non-residents, although there’s leeway for visitors from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan if they haven’t been to another country in the previous fortnight. Nonetheless, there’s a strong sense that the city is now paying a price for its early successes in pushing back the pandemic. “We believe that a large number of Hong Kong citizens will continue to come back… in the following weeks because of the worsening situation overseas and hence confirmed cases will inevitably continue to increase,” Lam warned on Wednesday.

The government is also running into criticism of its approach as the new wave of infections starts to be reported. The quarantining policy has been derided as ineffective – returnees mingle with family members who are free to go out and potentially spread the virus, for instance. Some experts have called for a different approach that requisitions hotels (a lot of which are empty) and thus forces returnees into a more formal quarantine for a fortnight in hotel rooms (an approach that neighbouring Macau has deployed successfully).

As of Friday morning, Hong Kong reported 453 cases of Covid-19 infection and four deaths. Those numbers sound low compared to parts of Europe but Lam says the next fortnight will be crucial in countering the virus as hotter weather in April could prove a barrier to the disease’s spread (based on the city’s experience with SARS). However, to prevent further contagion a plan for a London-style lockdown have also been heavily rumoured.

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