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Hong Kong’s outbreak shows the limits of zero-Covid — but the government isn’t budging

That’s the query now dealing with Hong Kong officers, as each day infections prime 4,000, and former fail-safe techniques start to buckle underneath the pressure of their very own uncompromising guidelines.

For virtually two years, Hong Kong had relied on a mix of stringent quarantines and complicated track-and-trace efforts to isolate optimistic instances, protecting the metropolis comparatively virus-free — whilst the relaxation of the world started to loosen restrictions.

But these measures now not seem enough in the face of the newest Omicron wave, which officers have described as a “tsunami.”

Hong Kong’s insistence on sending all optimistic instances to hospital, irrespective of the severity, has led to no less than one hospital being so overwhelmed it was pressured to maneuver sufferers on gurneys exterior, lining them up in the car parking zone.

Meanwhile, a raft of tightened restrictions and focused lockdowns have led many consultants and residents to query the sustainability of such an method as the metropolis enters the third 12 months of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the uncommon step of instantly calling on Hong Kong officers to take “all necessary measures,” in keeping with feedback revealed in two Chinese state-run newspapers.

Xi’s intervention has raised fears that additional restrictions much like these seen in mainland China, together with a potential citywide lockdown, may quickly observe.

So far, the native government has firmly dominated out such a transfer, suggesting it will be impractical to impose on a metropolis of greater than 7 million. But Xi’s feedback clarify that Hong Kong has little alternative but to stick to China’s hard-line zero-Covid technique — no matter the value.

The greatest outbreak but

The latest wave started in January, and rapidly spun out of management regardless of authorities’ more and more determined efforts.

In mid-January, the government killed greater than 2,500 hamsters and different small animals after a single Covid case was linked to a pet retailer, sparking widespread public outrage.

Days later, a housing cluster prompted the government to lockdown a number of buildings residence to 1000’s of folks. Soon, residents started complaining of trash piling up in the hallways, and of pay cuts for many who aren’t in a position to work throughout the lockdown.

In hindsight, it was an early signal of the chaos to come back, and of a government unequipped for a wave of this magnitude regardless of having had greater than two years to arrange.

Health officials push a trolley of supplies outside a locked-down residential building in Hong Kong on January 23.

Authorities reimposed a collection of acquainted restrictions: closing colleges, bars and public areas, suspending restaurant dine-in previous 6 p.m., and capping public gatherings.

But these measures — half of the government’s zero-Covid playbook every time a brand new outbreak arises — didn’t cease the surge. On Wednesday, the metropolis reported a record 4,285 new cases. Before this wave, Hong Kong had by no means seen greater than 200 new instances in a day.
Thousands of folks deemed shut contacts of optimistic instances discovered themselves pressured into government quarantine camps final month. Some reported not receiving checks or meals, whereas others remained locked up previous the deadline of their quarantine orders.

Many of the government’s guidelines have been shaped with the zero-Covid aim in thoughts, resembling hospitalization for all those that take a look at optimistic for Covid — regardless of their situation — and necessary checks for anyone who could have been uncovered.

Hong Kong's 'zero Covid' strategy frustrates travel-starved residents

These guidelines could have labored when Hong Kong was solely coping with just a few dozen instances at a time — but the scale of the newest outbreak has stretched them to breaking level.

As of Monday night, seven of Hong Kong’s 17 public hospitals had both reached or exceeded 100% inpatient mattress occupancy — resulting in the makeshift out of doors wards, which may pose an issue this weekend with rain and chilly temperatures anticipated. Long strains stretch throughout the metropolis, with folks ready hours to get examined.

But quite than contemplate totally different approaches, the government has dug its heels in, extra decided than ever to get again to zero instances.

“At this moment, we still feel that (dynamic zero-Covid) is the best strategy for Hong Kong,” Lam mentioned final week — referring to a brand new label that goals to rapidly suppress all outbreaks.

Even earlier than Xi’s reported directions, the Chinese central government stepped in earlier this week — maybe rising impatient with Hong Kong’s incapacity to rein in the virus itself.

China will ship well being consultants and medical provides to Hong Kong, and assist construct new quarantine and isolation amenities, officers mentioned — bringing to thoughts the momentary hospitals that have been constructed and operational inside weeks in Wuhan, the unique epicenter of the pandemic, at the begin of all of it.

Lam has welcomed the central government’s help, admitting Tuesday that Hong Kong was struggling to deal with the exponential progress of instances. “The problem we are facing is, given the magnitude, pace and severity of this fifth wave, it has outgrown our capacity,” she mentioned.

A widening hole

Though Hong Kong has aligned itself with Beijing in pursuing zero-Covid in the hopes of reopening borders with the mainland, it may have taken a special route — one now taking part in out in a really related metropolis, 1,600 miles (about 2,600 kilometers) away.

Last August, Singapore — which for years has competed with Hong Kong for the title of Asia’s prime worldwide enterprise hub — was amongst the first Asian international locations to declare it was transferring away from a zero-Covid coverage to dwelling with the virus as a substitute. It was quickly adopted by Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and others.

People walk in the Kreta Ayer district of Singapore ahead of the Lunar New Year on January 29.

The temper in Singapore is now drastically totally different than in Hong Kong. A excessive vaccination price and reopened journey with two dozen international locations imply each day life has kind of resumed. Though instances there are spiking as properly, persons are in a position to go to the films, meet associates at the bar, even attend sports activities occasions and reside concert events.

The few restrictions left — like caps on social gatherings — could quickly be lifted too when the Omicron wave subsides, the well being minister mentioned Monday. “Like most Singaporeans, I am looking forward to it,” he added.

But there’s little of that optimism in Hong Kong, with leaders defiant whilst the metropolis’s robust journey restrictions render it more and more remoted from the world.

“With the full support of the central (Chinese) government, the government’s united effort, and citizens’ full support, we have to fight against this wave of the virus,” Lam mentioned on Tuesday. “Surrendering to the virus is not an option.”

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