Hong Kong overwhelmed by rising COVID-19 cases threatening the economy: NPR
Hong Kong overwhelmed by rising COVID-19 cases threatening the economy: NPR

Hong Kong overwhelmed by rising COVID-19 cases threatening the economy: NPR

Patients are lying on hospital beds while waiting for a temporary seating area outside Caritas Medical Center in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Despite the strict adherence to a zero-COVID strategy, restrictions in Hong Kong that have already posed the once bustling city, many now fear that the worst is yet to come, with Hong Kong experiencing the worst eruption to date.

Vincent Yu / AP


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Patients are lying on hospital beds while waiting for a temporary seating area outside Caritas Medical Center in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Despite the strict adherence to a zero-COVID strategy, restrictions in Hong Kong that have already posed the once bustling city, many now fear that the worst is yet to come, with Hong Kong experiencing the worst eruption to date.

Vincent Yu / AP

HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s Fung Shing Restaurant was busy this week as customers came for a final taste of the traditional Cantonese dim sum that has made it famous.

With COVID-19 restrictions cutting too deep into the bottom line, the restaurant will close its doors forever on Sunday, another financial victim of the pandemic.

Many fear that the worst is on the way Hong Kong is experiencing its most severe outbreakand worries the authorities’ determination to stick to mainland China’s “zero tolerance” strategy may prevent it from recovering as a finance and travel hub.

“While perhaps zero-COVID can be achieved, there is still uncertainty about how long it can be maintained and what the cost is of maintaining it,” said Natixi senior economist Gary Ng.

“The biggest risk for Hong Kong in 2022 is that it may be heading into a fundamental, if not recession, at least a downward pull in economic growth again as the world begins to normalize,” Ng said.

A customer eats at an empty restaurant in Hong Kong on Monday.

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A customer eats at an empty restaurant in Hong Kong on Monday.

Vincent Yu / AP

Hong Kong has seen banks close branches and cinemas have closed. The streets of popular shopping and dining areas are lined with shops displaying “for rent” signs. Its international airport is almost devoid of travelers.

A ban on eating on site after kl. 18.00, which was introduced last month, deprives restaurants of critical dinner and banquet revenue.

Daily new coronavirus cases exceeded 2,000 for the first time on Monday; Thursday, 6,116 new cases were reported.

Hospitals are being overwhelmed, so the city is considering converting hotels and even unoccupied public housing into quarantine areas. But it shows no sign of withdrawing from matching mainland China’s stringent policies, even as the rest of the world learns to live with coronavirus.

China’s policy contrasts with other countries in Asia

As part of its zero-tolerance strategy, China has closed entire citiesliterally keeping people sequestered in their homes and supplying them with food and supplies as they are isolated during extensive testing and contact tracking to dampen outbreaks.

But China has many cities. Hong Kong, a former British colony and semi-autonomous region of China, lacks the resources for such a complete shutdown, which would halt virtually all economic activity in the city of about 7.5 million.

And people living in Hong Kong, who were handed over to communist-ruled China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” approach, are used to greater freedoms than mainland residents. Demolitions of individual buildings or city blocks have raised fierce criticism.

A woman walks into Hong Kong airport on Friday.

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A woman walks into Hong Kong airport on Friday.

Kin Cheung / AP

Regional rival Singapore is facing a similar wave of coronavirus infections caused by the highly contagious omicron variant. But it has chosen a strategy of “living with COVID.” It requires very high vaccination rates and widespread testing. Unlike Hong Kong, which requires people who test positive for quarantine in hospitals or other public facilities, Singapore lets COVID-19 patients with mild or no symptoms isolate at home.

So even though Singapore’s healthcare system is not in danger of being overwhelmed, Hong Kong hospitals have a capacity of 90% and some have had to treat patients outdoors due to lack of space inside.

Hong Kong postpones the election as the leader confirms the policy

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam shows no sign of withdrawing from the “zero-COVID” stance, saying Thursday that fighting the pandemic is her “overarching task” and the city would “not be distracted by other things.”

“We will impose the measures we should,” she said. “The aim is to ensure that Hong Kong’s life and health are protected and to maintain Hong Kong’s stability.”

On Friday, Lam announced that she was postponing the city’s election as CEO for six weeks until May 8 due to “public health risks” it would pose at this stage of the pandemic. It is not yet clear whether Lam will run for re-election.

To ease some pressure on hospitals, officials now say some patients with mild symptoms will be able to leave hospitals after just seven days – half the current need – if they test negative and do not live with any high-risk individuals.

Residents are waiting in long queues to be tested for coronavirus at a temporary test center in Hong Kong on February 10.

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Residents are waiting in long queues to be tested for coronavirus at a temporary test center in Hong Kong on February 10.

Vincent Yu / AP

With the current rate of spread of infections, new daily cases could rise to 28,000 in March, so it is unclear that that will be enough.

On the other hand, a relaxation of the zero-COVID strategy would prevent travel between the city and the mainland, where authorities require three weeks of quarantine or more. Beijing will not reopen Hong Kong’s border with the mainland until the city reaches and maintains zero COVID-19 cases.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping said this week that Hong Kong’s “overall task” is to gain control of the situation. Some health experts from the mainland arrived Thursday to help test. Beijing also sent antibodies and other resources.

Surge is devastating for business owners and residents

Customers at Fung Shing Restaurant said they felt powerless.

“I feel so helpless towards this restaurant during the pandemic,” said customer Mo Wan, a 78-year-old who has been a regular for the past decade. “I have established a deep friendship with the staff.”

Up to 3,000 of Hong Kong’s 17,000 restaurants could end up closing if current restrictions continue into March, said Michael Leung, president of the Hong Kong Catering Services Management Association, which represents 800 restaurant owners.

Leung has temporarily closed its own restaurant, Lucky Dragon Palace.
It is a sprawling establishment that would normally have room for 1,000 before the pandemic. Leung hopes to persevere, pay the rent and save on labor and supplies until he can reopen.

“The pandemic is very serious, there is almost no one on the street,” he said. “With fewer people going out, it doesn’t matter to restaurants. This fifth wave is affecting us really terribly. It really is an ice age for the catering industry.”

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