HONG KONG – Coronavirus patients lay in hospital beds or outdoor tents amid record numbers of infections as Hong Kong stubbornly adheres to its “zero-COVID” strategy, and China’s leader Xi Jinping said the local government’s “overall task” was to control the situation.
Hong Kong is facing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, topping 2,000 new COVID-19 cases every day this week. The city council has already introduced strict rules banning gatherings of more than two households.
But health facilities are beginning to overflow, and the city’s Caritas Medical Center on Wednesday was forced to treat some patients in beds outside the building. Others waited in tents, some appalled by the government’s response to the outbreak.
“The reason our society has become chaotic like this today is all because of this policy. The organizational prowess of the government has made the Hong Kong people feel so hopeless,” said Daisy Ho, a 70-year-old homemaker.
Xi instructed Deputy Prime Minister Han Zheng to express to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam the concerns of Chinese Communist Party leaders over the city’s ongoing outbreak, according to Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing news outlet.
Zheng said the Hong Kong government “should sincerely assume the main responsibility and consider the rapid stabilization and control of the epidemic as the current overriding task,” the report said.
China’s central government agencies and nearby Guangdong province will provide Hong Kong with resources to combat the outbreak, including rapid antigen testing, medical expertise and supplies, Zheng said.
China has been able to control the virus within its borders by maintaining a strict “zero tolerance” policy that involves total shutdown, extensive contact tracing and mass testing of millions of people. The strategy seeks to limit outbreaks as soon as they are detected.
Lam has stuck to the strategy despite geographical and other differences between Hong Kong and other parts of China. Last week, the entire exclusive Discovery Bay district of Hong Kong was ordered to undergo testing after authorities found traces of the virus in its wastewater.
The comments from Xi and Zheng were the latest pressure from Beijing for her to stay the course.
Thousands of people in the city have been tested positive for COVID-19 and are waiting to be admitted to hospitals or isolation facilities, said Dr. Sara Ho, Head of Patient Safety and Risk Management at Hong Kong Hospital Authority.
“This situation is undesirable. Therefore, we are looking for ways with the government to establish more isolation facilities. We hope to be able to shorten patients’ waiting time,” she added.
People who test positive are required to quarantine either in hospitals if they have severe symptoms, or in government-run facilities for mild or asymptomatic cases. The record number of new cases, driven by the highly transferable omicron variant, has led to the current overcrowding.
Yancey Yau, a construction worker, said the city’s hospital workers are facing great stress.
“They work so hard. But the government is not doing what they should be doing,” Yau said. “Hospital workers are just miserable. I hope more citizens will support them. I have no hope for this government.”
In contrast, the city-state of Singapore, which is the same size as Hong Kong with a population of about 5.7 million compared to 7.5 million, carried out strict decommissioning measures early in the pandemic, but is now pursuing a “live with COVID” approach.
The number of new cases per capita in Singapore has risen with the arrival of omicron, with 1,911 new cases per million people reported on Monday, up from 66 per million in Hong Kong, according to Our World in Data.
However, people who test positive and who have no symptoms or only mild symptoms should just quarantine themselves at home, and even those who have more severe symptoms are asked to see a doctor for medical advice before they going to the hospital.
As a result, it does not suffer from the stress on its healthcare system that Hong Kong is now experiencing.
Singapore also boasts one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, with 88 percent of the population fully vaccinated, compared to Hong Kong’s 64 percent.