The Hong Kong government has invoked emergency powers to fight unprecedented COVID-19 caseloads as other parts of the world see declines in transmission. Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced mandatory citywide testing will begin in March, as Hong Kong tries to achieve a “dynamic zero-COVID” policy in line with mainland China’s approach.
“It's ridiculous. It feels like we’re in the Third World. I never thought something like this would happen to an international financial hub,” said Hong Kong resident Packie Mak.
For more than six months, Hong Kong detected zero imported COVID-19 cases; however, since the Lunar New Year, the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus has led to an exponential growth in the caseload, with clusters developing throughout the city.
According to the Hong Kong government’s website, from February 17-23, there were an average of 6,327 cases of COVID-19 reported each day - compared to 1878 daily cases on average reported the week before.
“I think the biggest issue here is that they (government) didn’t do well in their preventive measures. They didn’t close the borders, and now all these cases have come through, and they only start to tackle this when the virus has already spread,” resident Ken Wong said.
Lam this week announced tougher measures to stop the spread.
“We will implement compulsory universal testing or in English, CUT, within three months, in order to cut off this transmission chain,” Lam said at a press conference.
The Hong Kong Security Bureau has also set up a new anti-epidemic police task force to prepare for mandatory testing throughout the city. Officials say they are in “full-on war mode.”
Hong Kong aims to follow Beijing’s approach by implementing a “dynamic zero-COVID-19 infection strategy.” The initiative includes designated clinics to take in COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms in order to ease the strain on public hospitals, which have reached maximum capacity.
Labs have been overwhelmed with people waiting days before getting test results.
Resources from the mainland have poured in as Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the city to contain the spread of the infection. The emergency powers exempt doctors from the mainland from licensing requirements and allow them to treat patients in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government is also looking to build makeshift hospitals for COVID-19 patients.
Some residents have voiced frustration with what they describe as inconsistent health measures, including a ban on gatherings of more than two people, while residents have been lining up outdoors for mandatory COVID-19 testing with many people waiting for hours in close proximity.
“You’re only applying measures selectively, which has caused so much outrage. What’s the point?” asked Wong.
Some residents say the measures will not be enough.
“I think there is a need to strengthen the preventive measures and increase citizens’ awareness, but I don’t think we can achieve zero COVID-19 [cases] because we live in such a densely populated environment, and (it is) so unlike on the mainland where they have much more space to carry out those measures such as quarantine,” said resident Jeremy Chan.
The Hong Kong government has introduced a vaccine pass, which requires citizens to provide their vaccination records before entering designated venues, such as shopping malls and wet markets.
“I don’t support the government in introducing stricter measures because we have our freedom and rights. Even forcing us to take vaccines is already not quite acceptable,” resident Veronica Kong said.
David Owens, a family practice doctor in Hong Kong, told VOA the Zero COVID-19 strategy had been successful, but that it is unrealistic at this stage to expect to completely eliminate the coronavirus from Hong Kong.
“Most of the people in Hong Kong are going to be infected in the next three months. So really what we want to do over the next two months is to focus on minimizing the harm to the health system,” Owens said.
Health authorities have started offering the Chinese Sinovac vaccine to children as young as three years old. Hong Kong currently has a vaccination rate of more than 76%, but only about 20% of those aged 3-11 have received their first shot.