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Hong Kong Residents Report Increased Pressures from COVID Policies


People wearing face masks walk through Wan Chai during the COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong, April 14, 2022.

Unpredictable local COVID-19 policies combined with China’s zero-pandemic approach to the coronavirus are taking a toll in Hong Kong, where residents and others say they are feeling increased pressures during the pandemic’s worst wave.

Reports of dead bodies filling hospital rooms, old people on beds outside hospitals in winter rain, long lines in freezing cold for mandatory PCR tests and complaints of neglect in government quarantine facilities have been in newspaper headlines in the last three months.

The city recorded the highest COVID death rate across the globe in early March, and residents witnessed the highest dissatisfaction rate with the government since the pandemic began.

Lack of support

One Hong Kong resident, requesting anonymity, was among those experiencing weeks of stress during the omicron wave. The 28-year-old’s mother started coughing in late February, and soon tested positive with at-home test kits.

At the time, the government only recognized COVID tests conducted in designated testing stations, which struggled to cope with explosive demand.

“My mother wanted to go to the stations for a test, but she was refused due to her symptoms. And there were so many people lining up – seriously even if I wasn’t infected, I probably would have contracted the virus if I had to line up like that,” the education worker told VOA.

Doctors at private clinics refused to see her mother because of her COVID symptoms. Then she went to the hospital to be told she would be better off going home as she would have to wait for over 10 hours if she stayed.

“My mother was extremely anxious at the time, and we didn’t know what to do since we didn’t know how bad it could get. We tried calling the government hotline for more support, but no one picked up. I couldn’t sleep for a few nights,” she said.

The daughter tested positive a few days later using the at-home test but given the reported conditions in quarantine facilities – including unpalatable food, negligence and shared toilets – she did not to report her test result to authorities to avoid being sent to one.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment work at a COVID-19 isolation facility, amid the pandemic, in Hong Kong, March 21, 2022.
Workers wearing personal protective equipment work at a COVID-19 isolation facility, amid the pandemic, in Hong Kong, March 21, 2022.

Inconsistent policies

On February 18, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a citywide testing plan under its zero-COVID approach to single out the confirmed patients and send some to quarantine facilities. At the time, she said a lockdown would not “go hand in hand” with the citywide testing.

Ten days later, Health Secretary Sophia Chan told public broadcaster RTHK that the city would not rule out a lockdown along with mass testing. That statement fueled fears among Hong Kongers, who were seen emptying supermarket pharmacy shelves in preparation.

A day later, Lam urged people to stay calm and not to believe in “rumors” of a lockdown, despite Chan’s comments. Eight days later, Lam said the city would drop citywide testing – which had been supposed to launch in March – as a priority.

Starting April 21, dining in in restaurants will resume, and recreational venues, including gyms, cinemas and theme parks will reopen.

Another Hong Kong resident, who wished to stay anonymous, told VOA she did not report testing positive to the government because of “mercurial” policies.

“I can’t even begin – they [the government] didn’t have any organizational skills. Their measures are mercurial, so residents don’t know how to adapt. When I was sick, I couldn’t get my hands on any medication because by that point, people already stocked up a lot [during panic buying]. I was worried that my symptoms could be very serious,” she said.

Volunteers hold anti-epidemic bags as they deliver them to residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Hong Kong, April 3, 2022.
Volunteers hold anti-epidemic bags as they deliver them to residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Hong Kong, April 3, 2022.

Financial and mental strains

Hong Kong residents fear losing their jobs due to mandatory quarantine, Benjamin Cowling, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong, told VOA in an email.

“A lot of people could be uneasy about the idea of being locked inside a relatively small room for an unknown amount of time, and separated from their family members and pets. Some people have lost their jobs as a result of being isolated, because if they don’t show up to work, they will be replaced,” Cowling said.

The head of Soulgood, a local online counseling platform, told VOA the demand for counseling services jumped tenfold in the last three months.

“Mental stress has definitely increased in the past year due to COVID as there is more stress related to COVID policies…Main symptoms of this group were isolation, anxiety and depression,” Ben Cheung, CEO of the platform, wrote in an email.

More than 65,000 people applied for the government’s unemployment relief plan for COVID on the first day it was open, according to a government statement in late March.

A separate local survey revealed that that two-thirds of Hong Kongers would see their household income affected if they are restricted from going out during the citywide testing, and half think that they would be infected when getting their specimens collected at the testing station.

The survey also indicated that close to half of Hong Kongers do not support policies requiring confirmed patients to quarantine at government designated facilities.

Zero-COVID approach

Hong Kong cannot make the final decision on its COVID policies, according to Alfred Wu, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore specializing in governance in the Greater China region.

“It is clear that Beijing makes the final decision. … China thinks zero-COVID policy works, and so every city should try to implement that, including Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government knows they have to listen to Beijing, even when many people and businesses are opposed to stringent restrictions,” Wu told VOA by phone.

A zero-COVID approach is likely only effective when the population is mostly vaccinated, according to Dr. Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at the Canberra Hospital in Australia.

“Policies that keep covid at low levels or at zero levels are a good idea initially while you get you population vaccinated,” Collignon told VOA in an email.

Hong Kong’s elderly have been hit the hardest by the Omicron wave, with people aged over 80 witnessing the highest number of deaths. This group also saw the lowest vaccination rate - below 60%.

“The biggest mistake in Hong Kong was to presume they [the government] could maintain zero COVID but more importantly, not to ensure that those most likely to die from COVID when it inevitably entered Hong Kong and spread widely, the elderly, were vaccinated. Hence why the death toll in HK is so high per capita compared to other countries who also had low levels or zero covid before,” Collignon added.

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