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Hong Kong’s zero-COVID policy, according to experts, is unsustainable

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past empty counters of Cathay Pacific at Hong Kong International Airport following fresh measures to control coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in Hong Kong, China January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik/File Photo

Hong Kong is scrambling to maintain a zero-COVID policy that has turned one of the world’s most densely packed cities into one of the most secluded, with thousands of people locked up in tiny apartments, government quarantine centres filling up, and many businesses shuttered.

The news: Residents claim that the economic and psychological costs of the global financial hub’s tough stance, which is in line with China’s agenda, are rapidly escalating, with restrictions becoming more draconian than those originally introduced in 2020.

  • Flights out of Hong Kong’s international airport are down by over 90 per cent, over 8,000 individuals have been detained in government quarantine facilities and a crowded apartment complex, and 900,000 kids have been barred from attending school since the beginning of this week.
  • According to doctors, the restrictions are wreaking havoc on people’ mental health.

What’s going on: Hong Kong, once one of the world’s most linked cities, is reeling from the closure of its borders, which has harmed the free flow of people as well as the availability of food and foreign products on which the city is so reliant.

  • Aside from schools, the 7.5 million-person city has closed playgrounds, gyms, and most other venues, and tens of thousands of individuals have been ordered to take daily coronavirus testing.
  • At 6 p.m., restaurants and bars close (1000 GMT).
  • As the number of community cases rises, almost 2,000 hamsters and other animals have been slaughtered to stop transmissions.

Experts speak: Siddharth Sridhar, clinical assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Microbiology, said “a very practical adjustment in terms of our containment strategy” was needed.

  • “This is not sustainable,” he said. “Eventually we are going to see a very local protracted outbreak, likely to be worse than previous cases.”
  • While Hong Kong managed to keep the virus under control for much of 2021, the highly transmissible Omicron variety expanded, resulting in over 600 locally transmitted illnesses in January, compared to just two in December.
  • “Essentially it’s playing whack-a-mole. It (coronavirus) will simply keep coming back,” said Keith Neal, professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, referring to the popular amusement arcade game.
  • Shutting down is an “unworkable strategy” for Hong Kong, according to Sumit Agarwal, a professor at the Business School of the National University of Singapore, as the policy’s economic and social consequences continue to rise.
  • “Only Hong Kong and China are saying they are trying to eradicate the virus,” he said. “It would have worked if other countries did the same but the fact they don’t think that way means the virus is always flowing.”

What Lam said: Leader Carrie Lam has stated that Hong Kong, like many other major cities, cannot survive the virus. She claims that over 80 per cent of the city’s elderly are unvaccinated, and that a significant outbreak of diseases would put a strain on already overburdened healthcare systems.

  • Increasing Hong Kong’s vaccination rate is critical, as only about 70 per cent of the population has been vaccinated twice and only about 10 per cent has received a booster or third injection.

What’s going on: Following months of pressure from financial executives and foreign diplomats who claimed the rule was damaging the city’s competitiveness, Lam announced on Thursday that Hong Kong will reduce its 21-day quarantine requirement for arriving travellers to 14 days beginning Feb. 5.

  • Many professionals and expatriates are leaving or intending to leave the former British colony because they believe the limitations will not be lifted anytime soon.
  • According to an internal analysis by the city’s European Chamber of Commerce, quarantine rules for people affected as well as close contacts are lowering the city’s attractiveness and risking an exodus.
  • Companies are relocating their employees to Singapore and Seoul, according to the report.
  • Daily briefings are held by Hong Kong officials, who provide information on each affected person, including where they live, what they ate, and where they travelled. They use credit card statements, transportation records, CCTV footage, and a government app to identify and quarantine close contacts.
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