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Hong Kong residents are becoming increasingly annoyed with the administration’s insistence on sticking to China's “zero-COVID” strategy as the city posted another record number of cases Wednesday, bristling at ever-stricter regulations and a plan to test everyone for the virus.
Schools have already switched to online learning and summer holidays are being moved forward so that the buildings can be used as facilities for testing, isolation and vaccination. Hong Kong says it will go ahead with the plan to test every one of its 7.5 million residents three times in March.
Under the “zero-COVID-19" strategy, every person testing positive case must be quarantined in a hospital or other government facility for 14 days regardless of symptoms. It's in contrast with most countries, which are reducing restrictions and allowing people with mild or no symptoms to remain at home.
“The whole world knows we have to live with the virus, only the Hong Kong government does not know,” said taxi driver Chan Tai-man. “Actually it's not that they don't know, they only do what the Chinese government tells them to.”
With hospitals in Hong Kong already overwhelmed, construction crews from mainland China are being sent to build new isolation units and the city was moving to convert hotels, halls, indoor stadiums and other quarantine locations, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said.
Chinese medical teams were also building mobile testing laboratories to help prepare Hong Kong for the launch of the mass testing.
“Everybody is now predicting that we will have a pretty sizeable percentage of people infected with COVID-19 in Hong Kong, so hopefully through comprehensive universal testing we will try to identify these infected cases and put them in isolation,” Lam told reporters Tuesday night.
“To ensure the success, we need a lot more isolation facilities.”
Leung Chun-kit, a kitchen worker, said he didn’t think the government was prepared for universal testing and dealing with the results.
“I think the government should consider increasing hospital manpower and facilities to better support the health workers,” he said.
In his presentation of the city budget on Wednesday, Financial Secretary Paul Chan announced a series of measures to provide relief to residents and small businesses, as well as resources to fight the pandemic.
After keeping the coronavirus largely at bay with extremely strict regulations on international travel and internal restrictions, Hong Kong has seen record numbers of new cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Last week the daily figure climbed to more than 6,000 confirmed cases for the first time, then hit more than 7,000 earlier this week. On Wednesday, Hong Hong reported 8,674 cases.
The analysis of sewage samples suggest the real number could be far greater, with experts predicting that the citywide testing could catch some 300,000 cases.
“We probably have not seen the peak of this wave, so how we are going to manage the next two to three months will be extremely essential and critical to containing, but there is no guarantee whatsoever,” Lam said.
Currently 68% of Hong Kong's population is fully vaccinated and another 10% has had one shot, according to Our World in Data.
As part of its zero-tolerance strategy, China has locked down entire cities, keeping people sequestered in their homes and providing them with food and supplies during extensive testing and contact tracing.
Hong Kong, a former British colony and semi-autonomous region of China, lacks the resources for a complete lockdown but there is growing fear among residents that it is going in that direction. Smaller lockdowns of single buildings or city blocks have raised vehement criticism.
Hong Kong operates under the “one country, two systems” principle within China, but the mainland has been exerting ever-increasing authority.
Lam insisted “there is no instruction from the Central People's Government on a lockdown" and that the current outbreak was “entirely a matter” for her administration to handle.
“Our motherland is giving us all the support that we need at this critical stage,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I am responsible under ‘one country, two systems.’"
China on Wednesday reported 90 new cases of domestic transmission, almost half in the northern Inner Mongolia region and 10 in Beijing. Shenzhen in Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong, reported seven new cases.
Guangdong also recorded 38 imported cases, all from Hong Kong, despite strict border controls that have virtually severed travel between Hong Kong and the mainland.
Addressing the surge in Hong Kong on Monday, China's leading epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said strict control measures were needed to prevent a higher death rate among the elderly.
Mainland China has lifted lockdowns on millions of people in cities in the north and center of the country, but continues to impose quarantines and require mass testing in districts where cases have been reported.
Practically for Lam, relaxing the zero-COVID-19 strategy would further hinder 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 cases.
Hong Kong already is operating under its strictest curbs on travel, business and public activity since the pandemic began. In place since Feb. 10, they also prohibit gatherings of more than two households. Restaurants, hair salons and religious sites were ordered closed.
Those restrictions are expected to be tightened further on Thursday, the same day the government rolls out a new app to control access to specified venues.
The app will contain the user’s vaccination records and only residents who have had at least one shot, or certain specified medical exemptions, will be allowed to enter places like restaurants, malls and supermarkets.
“If Hong Kong still has to live the zero-COVID policy and then cannot achieve it, then Hong Kong would become an island because it basically will be cut off from the rest of the world, including China, and we already see the escalation in price of vegetables,” said Francis Lun, the CEO of Geo Securities in Hong Kong.
"In addition, the status of Hong Kong as an international financial center would suffer.”
- by Alice Fung and David Rising, Associated Press