Hong Kong’s Covid crackdown empties stores and triggers exodus

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HONG KONG — As the Hong Kong government scrambles to contain the city’s worst Covid outbreak, some residents have panicked. They emptied the supermarket shelves of vegetables and meat. They raided pharmacies to buy pain and fever medication. Those who could afford it hopped on flights out of town.

Tens of thousands of new cases of Omicron are being reported every day and deaths have been increasing. The anxiety gripping Hong Kong is not just about the explosion in infections, but also about what the government will do next. Mixed messages from authorities have residents wondering: will there be a lockdown? Will we be sent to isolation centers? Will our children be taken from us if they test positive?

Under pressure from Beijing to stamp out infections, Hong Kong officials have pledged to test all 7.4million residents. Such an operation would require restricting people’s movements, but the government has been ambiguous about whether it will impose a lockdown, and if so, when. The mere possibility of just one, however, sparked the race for groceries and other supplies.

“I’ve spent most of my life here, through everything, and I’ve never seen anything like the panic I’ve seen from the public,” said Allan Zeman, 72, a property developer and councilor of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.

The city’s death rate from the virus is currently among the highest in the world, at three per 100,000 people, largely because many elderly Hong Kongers are unvaccinated. (Since the start of the pandemic, however, Covid has killed Americans at much higher rates than people in other wealthy countries, as well as in Hong Kong.)

Hong Kong is one of the last places in the world still trying to eradicate the coronavirus, rather than living with it. It has doubled down on its strategy of isolating every detected case, regardless of severity and symptoms, and imposing quarantine orders on people considered close contacts, despite a shortage of facilities and workers. Rising infections, along with government measures, have already overwhelmed hospitals, morgues, ambulance services and quarantine facilities, and forced post offices, banks and even prisons understaffed to reduce their services.

Residents have been particularly alarmed by the government’s approach to children who test positive for coronavirus. The city erupted into an uproar two weeks ago after health workers took an infected 11-month-old girl from her parents and isolated her in a hospital. A parent is usually allowed to accompany a child, but hospitals are overcrowded, with hundreds of children stuck in Covid isolation wards. Officials later said they would hold video chats to allow hospitalized children to stay in touch with family members.

Kaylah Tong, a 35-year-old pastor, said she sent her 2-year-old son to hospital last month after he tested positive, with high fever and convulsions. He was left alone in an isolation ward for two days.

A doctor initially warned her that her son could be kept in solitary confinement for weeks due to the hospital’s Covid-19 protocols, which include requiring patients to test negative before being discharged. This caused Ms. Tong to worry about her son’s mental health.

“How could children have been kept there for so long without their parents by their side, just because of the quarantine measures? I cannot accept this,” she said.

On the third day, however, the hospital let Ms. Tong take her son home to recover; his condition had improved and his hospital bed was needed. The government later said it would temporarily relax its policy so that only children with severe coronavirus symptoms needed hospitalization.

Foreign governments have also reacted to Hong Kong’s pandemic measures with concern. Citing the risk of family separation, the US consulate last week warned Americans not to travel to Hong Kong. The Consul General of France acknowledged that the latest measures would “deeply affect everyone’s life, with a price to pay which has continued to increase for two years, especially for families with children”.

Consular officials have been working to help expats find travel arrangements to leave Hong Kong, which has banned flights from nine countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. The Swiss consulate organized a flight for the citizens. The Irish consulate said it had “never experienced this level of demand for consular services for those wishing to leave”.

Hong Kong, a place once known as “Asia’s global city”, now has some of the strictest travel restrictions, isolating it from the rest of the world. The new uncertainty has led to the largest exodus of residents since the early days of the pandemic in 2020, with more than 70,000 net departures last month, according to data from the Department of Immigration.

A few weeks earlier, Cordula Kotanko, a German management consultant, and her husband had considered leaving Hong Kong because their three daughters had struggled with distance learning through much of the pandemic. They also worried about the prospect of being caught in a citywide lockdown.

Then, late last month, the government announced it would bring forward the summer holidays to start in March and April, about four months earlier than usual. Officials said they plan to use schools to conduct mass testing and isolate the sick. This prompted Mrs. Kotanko and her husband to pack up their family and fly to Singapore.

“At that time, we just wanted to leave Hong Kong so that we could act in a way that we could make decisions and not have decisions made for us,” Ms Kotanko said. “What we have experienced over the past two years is that children always come last to Hong Kong and children have had to bear a lot of the pandemic.”

The outbreak and government policies have been particularly hard on the city’s working class. Many service workers lost their jobs while thousands of businesses went bankrupt. Families living in tiny apartments have been forced to choose between staying home and infecting loved ones or sleeping elsewhere.

The state of grocery stores and pharmacies is perhaps the most stark illustration of how this international hub is collapsing under this push from Omicron.

Mannings, one of Hong Kong’s best-known drugstore chains, had to temporarily close dozens of its stores. According to its website, various painkillers and Covid test kits are out of stock. Some other pharmacies in town are running out of sanitary napkins and tampons.

ParknShop, a supermarket chain, has limited individual purchases of canned goods, toilet paper and medicine. At Wellcome, another supermarket chain, employees put little notices on the shelves asking customers not to hoard vegetables, meat and eggs.

Last Tuesday, graduate student Betty Xiao rushed to the largest supermarket in Tai Po, a district in northern Hong Kong where she lives, after her roommate told her the government might announce a lockdown. Ms. Xiao wanted to stock up on food in case online grocery deliveries were interrupted.

As she approached the store, she could see a line of customers winding down the street. Inside, she said, she and others were picking up items straight from boxes that employees hadn’t even unloaded on the shelves. Ms. Xiao said she was able to grab the last bag of bread.

“It was quite a tense atmosphere,” Ms. Xiao said. “I had to be fast.”

Joy Dong contributed report.

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