In May and June Hong Kong had seemed a relative safe haven insofar as the coronavirus was concerned. There were few locally transmitted cases and long periods when no new infections were reported in the community. At one point, only about 30 people were hospitalised and the number of deaths was very low (at just four).
But any sense of success in pushing back the pandemic was shattered this month as a ‘third wave’ of infections spread across the city. On Sunday a 108 new cases were confirmed – the first time that a triple-digit figure was announced for a single day – and in the preceding fortnight over 500 infections had come to light.
“The situation is very severe and there are no signs that this is getting under control,” warned Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, on Sunday.
By comparison, no city in mainland China faces a situation anywhere near as seriousas this (the recent outbreak in Beijing was contained over the last two weeks).
Lam’s government has escalated measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 with a larger number of restrictions than in April, when an earlier lockdown was initiated to fight a ‘second wave’ of infection triggered by Hong Kong residents returning from Europe and the US.
Places deemed to pose a higher risk of contagion such as bars and gyms have been closed, while restaurants and clubs have been told they cannot serve food on the premises after 6pm. At lunchtimes, the numbers of diners at tables have been capped at four.
Lam said that the Department of Justice had enacted a legal amendment requiring the wearing of masks in indoor public places (last week the government made it mandatory to wear face coverings on public transport). The stipulation would include shopping malls, but not offices, the government then clarified. Meanwhile civil servants have been asked to work from home this week in a bid to free up space for social distancing on public transport.
Government health chief Sophia Chan Siu-chee said that the bulk of the new infections had been contracted in places such as restaurants and malls. As yet there isn’t a requirement to wear a mask outdoors in public. “When people exercise outdoors, for example, when they are jogging, it’s hard for them to wear masks,” Chan said. “That’s why we decided to target indoor public places first.”
Local commentators are blaming the higher incidence of infections on a sense of complacency. For instance, the government’s relaxation of its earlier rule that no more than eight people could gather for a meal was cited for super-spreading that occurred at banquets held on Father’s Day on June 21, which then saw the number of new cases tick up in July.
The source of many of the new infections is still unclear. While there were quarantines in place for most people coming into the city, special exemptions applied to air crew and sailors – many of whom were arriving from virus-affected areas. The government also allowed thousands of domestic helpers to arrive from Manila. It is now mandatory for employers to quarantine newly-arriving maids in pre-approved hotels for 14 days, even if they test negative for the virus at the airport.
Virus experts say that the dangers of a worsening outbreak are much higher now than they were in April. That’s because it has been impossible to trace the source of the infection in more than half of the current cases, suggesting that a community outbreak is already underway.
In the meantime a rattled government has been preparing for the worst. Test numbers have risen to 10,000 a day and 2,000 new quarantine units are being built near Disneyland. Also on Lantau island, the AsiaWorld-Expo is in the process of being converted into a makeshift hospital to take Covid-19 patients, as well as elderly residents at risk of further outbreaks at care homes.
On the plus side the Hong Kong population has been disciplined about mask-wearing and handwashing. Although the number of deaths (15) might seem minimal compared to the situation in places like the US and Brazil, the next 10 days will be critical.
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