Hong Kong faces worst wave of virus, but can’t be blocked

Customers wearing face masks wait for take-out orders outside a restaurant on July 24.

Photo credit: Chan Long Hei / Bloomberg

Once a coronavirus success story, Hong Kong is facing its worst outbreak yet, and policymakers are realizing how little they can do without making the situation worse.

New infections have broken records in nine of the past 20 days. But unlike other cities in the world, Hong Kong has been reluctant to impose restrictions on staying at home or closing nonessential businesses. Instead, the rules have become increasingly stringent, changing with the week. Public meetings were limited to four people, then two. Dinner was forbidden for dinner, then lunch. Masks were required on public transport, then in all indoor public spaces, now also everywhere outdoors.

The steady trickle of half-measures goes against what the short history of the pandemic has shown to work: wide blockades and strict taxes early in the infection curve. In Australia and other places currently fighting outbreaks, officials have quickly reinstated strict restrictions.

While still modest compared to outbreaks in many cities around the world, the increase in Hong Kong is particularly concerning, coming after months of near-zero community transmission and origins not yet traceable, exactly the circumstances in which the strictest restrictions are considered the most effective.

Wave of virus swells

Hong Kong reported 98 new cases of local coronaviruses on Tuesday

Sources: Hong Kong government, Bloomberg

But going further in Hong Kong could lead to a humanitarian crisis. “It is extremely difficult to impose a blockade on Hong Kong,” said Fernando Cheung, a legislator with a history of social defense. “There are more than 200,000 people living in subdivided units, some without private baths and others combining their kitchens, baths, and sleeping places, all in one room. Asking people not to leave that environment for a long period of time is inhumane and impractical. “

With an average apartment of around 500 square feet, roughly the size of a New York City studio, it’s not just the 1.4 million poorest residents of the city who live in small spaces. Refrigerators are too small, shelf space is too limited to stock up on food for one week at a time. And while ordering groceries online has become standard in other modern cities, it is neither common nor easy in Hong Kong.

“A complete closure? No one will say that this is not in the arsenal, but logistically it is a nightmare, “said Bernard Chan, chief adviser to CEO Carrie Lam, in an interview. “People still need to go out and buy groceries. And people live in such a tight environment, even going down the elevator that is exposed. “

Nano Homes

Hong Kong apartments are the smallest in the world.

Source: reduce that footprint

The challenge facing Hong Kong offers further evidence of the pandemic’s disparate impact across existing social and economic failures. From the US to parts of Europe and South America, the most vulnerable populations are most affected by the health crisis, which is worsened by dysfunctional institutions and structures.

The city lockdown dilemma has already It developed in some developing countries like India, where the measure caused economic devastation and hunger without slowing down the virus. The country abandoned its closure last month and cases have accelerated to nearly 50,000 per day.

Whether or not Hong Kong officials tighten the restrictions, time is running out on the current strategy. About 80% of the beds and isolation rooms in public hospitals are full, and the city tests Capacity is limited. The government is trying to add capacity with private testing laboratories in Hong Kong and mainland China, and is preparing community isolation centers for patients in stable condition.