Hong Kong Faces Worst Wave of Virus, But It Can’t Just Lock Down

Once a coronavirus success story, Hong Kong is facing its worst outbreak yet, and policy makers are realizing how little they can do without making a bad situation worse.

New infections have broken records in nine of the last 20 days. But unlike other global cities, Hong Kong has been reluctant to impose stay-at-home restrictions or close nonessential businesses. Instead, the rules have gotten incrementally tighter, changing by the week. Public gatherings were limited to four people, then two. Dining-in was banned for dinner, then lunch. Masks were required on public transport, then all indoor public spaces, now everywhere outdoors as well.

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    The steady drip of half-measures goes against what the short history of the pandemic has shown to work: broad and stringent lockdowns leviedearly on the infection curve. In Australia and other places currently fighting flare-ups, officials have quickly reinstated tight restrictions.

    While still modest compared with outbreaks in many global cities, the up-tick in Hong Kong is particularly troubling, arriving after months with near-zero community transmission and from as yet untraceable origins — exactly thecircumstances in which the tightest restrictions are thought to be the most effective.

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    But going further in Hong Kong could lead to a humanitarian crisis. “It is extremely difficult to enforce a lockdown in Hong Kong,” said Fernando Cheung, a lawmaker with a record of social advocacy. “There are more than 200,000 people living in subdivided units, some without private toilets and others combining their kitchens, toilets, and sleeping places all in one room. To ask people not to step out of that environment for a long period of time is inhumane and impractical.”

    With the average apartment running around 500 square feet -- about the size of a New York City studio -- it’s not just the city’s 1.4 million poorest residents living in tiny spaces. Refrigerators are too small, shelf space too limited to stock up on a week’s worth of food at a time. And while ordering groceries online has become standard in other modern cities, it isn’t common or easy in Hong Kong.

    “A full lockdown? Nobody will say that this isn’t in the arsenal, but logistically it’s a nightmare,” Bernard Chan, a top adviser to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said in an interview. “People still need to go out and buy groceries. And people live in such a tight environment, even going down the lift you’re exposed.”

    The challenge facing Hong Kong offers more evidence of the disparate impact of the pandemic along existing social and economic fault lines. From the U.S to parts of Europe and South America, the most vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt of the health crisis, made worse by dysfunctional institutions and structures.

    The city’s lockdown dilemma has alreadyplayed out in some developing countries like India, where the measure caused economic devastation and starvation without slowing down the virus. The country abandoned its lockdown last month and cases have accelerated to nearly 50,000 a day.

    Whether or not Hong Kong officials tighten restrictions further, time is running out on the current strategy. Some 80% of isolation beds and wards in public hospitals are full, and the city’s testingcapacity is limited. The government is trying to add capacity with private testing labs in Hong Kong and mainland China, and preparing community isolation centers for patients in stable condition.

    Meanwhile, the economy is already in deep recession, rocked first by months of anti-Beijing protests, then by the pandemic. The government reports second-quarter growth figures on Wednesday, and economists expect a contraction of 8.2% compared with a year ago and near the record first-quarter decline of 8.9%. The unemployment rate has more thandoubled to 6.2% in the past 12 months, reaching a 15-year high.

    Read more: Hong Kong’s Yawning Wealth Gap Grows Wider Amid Pandemic

    In its current state of political and economic fragility, Hong Kong can’t impose heavy lockdowns to eliminate all cases the way mainland China does, said Lam Ching Choi, a medical doctor and adviser to Lam. Instead, the measures have to balance personal and economic needs with public health outcomes, and allow the city to remain an open, international financial center.

    “Our trust level is maybe the lowest compared with western countries because of the social events that happened this year,” Lam said in an interview. “So we must listen to our people and not affect their work, their daily lives – like shopping or visiting their family members.”

    The poorest in one of the world’s most unequal societies are already suffering under the new restrictions, even if they’re not officially locked down.

    “This is a humanitarian disaster for the poor,” said Ng Wai Tung, a social worker at the Society for Communication Organization. Some of the city’s poorest families have to share masks because they can’t afford more. Many have lost jobs, he said, and homeless people have lost access to public showers.

    At 62, Yu Kwan-yee works two cleaning jobs to afford the rent on a subdivided unit in a poor neighborhood. “I feel depressed, as I have to sit on the bed and face the walls,” she said. “When others can have room to hoard food, I need to go to wet markets every day. It’s risky -- who wouldn’t worry?”

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