Hong Kong guess on zero-Covid. Now it is going through a ‘preventable catastrophe’

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Hong Kong — as soon as lauded as a zero-Covid success story — is now battling a lethal outbreak paying homage to the early days of the pandemic, regardless of having had greater than two years to organize.

For 2 years, because the pandemic raged world wide, Hong Kong largely contained the virus, and there was a rising feeling the town would possibly maintain the virus out perpetually.

As circumstances rose this yr, the federal government reimposed its strictest guidelines, limiting public gatherings to 2, closing eating places and bars after 6 p.m., and roping off public playgrounds.

But it surely nonetheless wasn’t sufficient. With few different levers to drag, the federal government plans to launch a compulsory mass testing drive in an try and purge the town of Covid. Colleges will break for summer season early and be repurposed as isolation, testing and vaccination amenities. And it is nonetheless unclear whether or not a citywide lockdown is on the playing cards.

“March goes to be a really, very troublesome time,” stated Sridhar. “(It is) positively an unprecedented well being disaster for Hong Kong.”

For a metropolis that has already put up with two years of robust restrictions, information of citywide testing has proved an excessive amount of for some residents who’re frantically searching for a flight out.

And whereas vaccines imply Hong Kong is healthier off than it could have been two years in the past, immunization charges are nonetheless lagging amongst its aged inhabitants — that means most of the metropolis’s most weak are nonetheless unprotected.

What went flawed in Hong Kong

At Queen Elizabeth, one among Hong Kong’s largest hospitals, sufferers sit in a sparse, windowless commentary room whereas they look forward to a mattress in an isolation ward. Two nurses, who requested to not be named as a result of they concern repercussions for talking out, advised CNN final week the commentary room smells of feces — there aren’t any restrooms, so sufferers are compelled to make use of bedpans.

The nurses say workers shortages imply there’s typically a delay in checking on sufferers as extra arrive for care, and there are too many individuals wanting remedy and never sufficient beds.

“A affected person is unlikely to get into an isolation ward except that affected person is on the verge of dying,” one staffer stated. “Irrespective of how laborious we work, the state of affairs would not change, but we nonetheless can not cease. The state of affairs is hopeless.”

The hospital’s morgue is overflowing and a few our bodies are being saved for hours at room temperature, in keeping with one of many nurses.

A medication and geriatrics physician at one other hospital in Hong Kong, who requested to not be named as she fears repercussions, stated the sheer variety of sufferers was “astounding,” with some ready as much as 4 days to be seen by a health care provider.

“It is so packed and unfold so skinny for manpower, you could have like one nurse seeing 20 sufferers,” she stated final week. “What we’re seeing right here is nothing I’ve ever seen earlier than.”

Covid-19 patients seen laying on beds outside the Caritas Medical Center in Hong Kong.

In an announcement to CNN, the Hospital Authority stated it was going through “unprecedented challenges,” and apologized to sufferers who had skilled lengthy wait instances.

With a pointy improve in Covid-19 deaths as a result of chilly climate, the “cupboard space in hospital mortuaries has reached full capability,” the assertion stated.

In a briefing Tuesday, well being officers stated they’re including refrigerated containers and expediting the development of a brand new mortuary to offer no less than 800 additional items. So far, Hong Kong has recorded 1,554 deaths for the reason that starting of the pandemic, up from 213 on the finish of December 2021.

Covid patients outside the Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong on February 25, 2022.
A Covid patient on a stretcher outside the Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong on February 25, 2022.

That surge in circumstances can be placing stress on hospital wards.

Beforehand, all Covid optimistic circumstances have been positioned in hospital, and any shut contacts into government-run quarantine — even when they have been asymptomatic. However with hovering circumstances, it turned not possible to quarantine all optimistic circumstances and shut contacts.
“Our healthcare system is on the fringe of collapse,” the Hong Kong Medical doctors Union stated in an open letter in February.

However some optimistic circumstances are determined to be admitted to government-run amenities, regardless of how sick they’re, as a result of for a lot of the pandemic they have been advised that is the best factor to do, Hong Kong College professor Jin Dong-yan stated. That is not solely placing stress on the system, he stated, however is exposing others to an infection.

“They simply grasp round, come to this or that hospital, simply hoping to be admitted,” he stated final month. “They may unfold the virus to others.”

The state of affairs can be being exacerbated by Hong Kong’s excessive proportion of unvaccinated folks.

As of this week, 78% of the inhabitants — excluding these aged Three to 11 — are double vaccinated, however simply 48% of individuals aged 70 or older have obtained two doses. Initially of this yr, simply 25% of individuals age 80 or over had been vaccinated.

On Friday, authorities officers stated vaccinating the aged was now a public well being precedence, describing care properties as “scorching spots” for the virus. And as of Friday, the wait time between the primary and second doses of the Chinese language-made Sinovac shot can be decreased from 28 days to 21 days for the aged.

The low vaccination price among the many aged seems to be taking part in out within the metropolis’s loss of life toll. Virtually all the metropolis’s Covid-19 deaths reported this yr are aged and unvaccinated — and lots of of them lived in care properties.

Stephanie Regulation, an government committee member from the Aged Companies Affiliation of Hong Kong, stated for a lot of older residents, issues about Covid vaccine unwanted side effects outweighed the dangers of getting the illness.

“Previously, lots of people felt that it isn’t a precedence to have the vaccine,” she stated. Now, care staff really feel “helpless” because the virus spreads via properties, the place some residents stay 4 or six folks to a room, she stated.

Karen Grepin, an affiliate professor on the Faculty of Public Well being on the College of Hong Kong, stated the narrative within the metropolis had developed to the purpose that individuals had began to imagine Hong Kong might maintain the virus out perpetually.

“Folks actually began to imagine that even the miniscule threat related to vaccination was increased than the chance of Covid,” she stated.

“We’re paying for that complacency.”

Why Hong Kong is unable to shift

Hong Kong is not the one zero-Covid place on the planet to expertise an outbreak.

Each New Zealand and Singapore spent greater than a yr shut off from the world. Throughout that point, they ready for an inevitable outbreak. They elevated vaccination charges, particularly of their most weak populations, and adjusted their public messaging from eradicating Covid to residing with the virus, albeit with precautions. And whereas each nations are actually experiencing a spike in circumstances, neither are seeing the identical stage of deaths as Hong Kong.
In each nations, greater than 90% of these age 70 or over are absolutely vaccinated — far increased than in Hong Kong, regardless of vaccines being out there within the metropolis for a yr.
Health care workers collect swab samples at a Covid-19 testing facility in Hong Kong on February 24.
Pedestrians along a near empty street at night in Hong Kong, February 24, 2022.

Specialists say Hong Kong might have finished extra to emphasise the significance of vaccination — particularly among the many aged and weak.

In contrast to many locations within the West, Hong Kong did not push vaccines as a manner out of the pandemic as a result of residing with the virus has up to now been rejected as an choice.

The Hong Kong authorities is in the end answerable to China’s ruling Communist Social gathering, which maintains a stringent “zero-Covid” coverage and has touted its suppression of the virus as proof of the supposed superiority of its one-party system over Western democracies, particularly the US.

Final month, Chinese language President Xi Jinping instructed Hong Kong to “take all essential measures” to comprise the outbreak.

“With central authorities’s help and the Hong Kong Folks’s unity, we will definitely conquer this pandemic,” Lam stated final Tuesday. “After the storm we’ll see a rainbow once more.”

Lam has maintained the newest measures usually are not dictated by Beijing, and as an alternative are the results of the 2 sides “exchanging concepts.”

Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, the founder and director of the Middle for Illness Dynamics, Economics and Coverage, says Beijing believes its Covid coverage is superior to different nations.

“It is the narrative that China will all the time be freed from Covid that will likely be problematic for China going ahead,” he stated. “A concept based mostly on this concept that you may maintain Covid out of your inhabitants perpetually simply defies any form of logic.”

China’s technique can be pushed by public well being issues. Mainland China, not like Hong Kong, has but to authorize an mRNA vaccine, regardless of questions over the efficacy over its domestically produced photographs. And a research by mathematicians on the nation’s prestigious Peking College discovered that China might face greater than 630,000 Covid-19 infections a day if it dropped its zero-tolerance insurance policies by reopening its borders.

Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at China’s Middle for Illness Management and Prevention, stated this week that the zero-Covid coverage will not stay unchanged perpetually — however added there was “no have to open the door on the peak of the worldwide epidemic.”

Workers build isolation units in Hong Kong on February 27, 2022.
An aerial view of the Tsing Yi mobile cabin hospital under construction on February 27, 2022, in Hong Kong

An unsure future

As different locations world wide open up and be taught to stay with Covid, Hong Kong nonetheless has a few of the strictest border guidelines on the planet, together with a ban on most non-Hong Kong residents coming into. And for a lot of within the metropolis, the obvious absence of a extra forward-facing plan is troublesome to bear.

Inside days of the announcement of mass testing, a brand new Fb group for recommendation on relocating had attracted greater than 3,900 members, with some saying they wished to get out earlier than citywide testing began.

One 37-year-old mom of two who requested to not be named for privateness causes stated final week she was leaving the town for Australia — and was not sure if or when she’ll be again. She fearful that Hong Kong’s public well being measures might imply her son, who has an autoimmune illness, may not have the ability to get the hospital remedy he wants and that her kids might be separated from her in the event that they take a look at optimistic.

“I really feel like the youngsters are being punished essentially the most all through this entire factor. It isn’t truthful on them,” she stated, referring to the restrictions. “(The general public well being coverage) scares me greater than the virus itself.”

Many locals, too, are rising pissed off.

James Hov, 31, poured his life financial savings right into a barbershop that has been closed for weeks below the restrictions. He worries he might lose his enterprise and battle to repay the engagement ring he purchased for his future partner.

“You possibly can’t finish Covid. Closing barbershops however having a cluster of individuals on trains for his or her each day commute — it is moronic — I am not so positive any logic was behind it,” he stated.

One 25-year-old tattoo artist who requested to not use her actual title as she is afraid of repercussions, stated final month she is constant her enterprise underground regardless of a present ban. She is refusing to get a vaccine as she would not belief both the Chinese language or Pfizer vaccines out there within the metropolis.

She is skeptical of Hong Kong’s insurance policies, which she stated have been merely there to fulfill China. “It is harming society, it is harming economics, it is harming folks’s well-being,” she stated.

For Hong Kong, there’s an unprecedented well being disaster forward, after which little gentle on the finish of the tunnel — even when the town opens up, one other wave is inevitable, stated virologist Sridhar.

“We’re simply ready for both the following wave or a shift in stance from the powers that be.”

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