| 15 April 2024, Monday |

Hong Kong considers mass testing as COVID fight intensifies

The coronavirus war in Hong Kong heated up on Thursday, with authorities reporting a 60-fold increase in new cases so far this month, and the city’s governor saying city-wide testing was being considered in the global financial metropolis.

In horrific pictures that forced an apology from authorities in the Chinese-controlled city, several patients, particularly the elderly, were left lying on mattresses outside in frigid, often rainy weather.

Schools, gyms, movie theaters, and most public places are closed, while many office workers are working from home. Despite the fact that most other large cities throughout the world have adjusted to living with the virus, many citizens are frustrated by the stringent limitations enforced to protect against the pandemic.

On Thursday, health officials reported a total of 6,116 confirmed cases, up from 4,285 the day before, with another 6,300 tentative positive cases. This brings the total number of people arrested since January to above 16,600. There were a total of 24 new deaths.
The increase in cases marks the city’s “dynamic zero COVID” policy’s toughest test yet, but Mayor Carrie Lam stressed this week that the city “cannot capitulate to the virus.”

According to certain media reports citing anonymous sources, the government plans to test up to 1 million individuals per day starting in March. Those who do not comply will be fined HK$10,000 ($1,282) if they do not comply.

Later, while greeting the arrival of several mainland Chinese health experts to assist with the outbreak, Lam informed reporters that “city-wide virus testing is a must.”

By the end of the month, she said, 300,000 tests might be completed everyday, according to local media.

A request for response from the government was not returned.

“Because of the large number of cases, we need to expedite admission to hospitals and community isolation centers,” said Chui Tak-yi, Undersecretary for Food and Health. “The administration is attempting to alleviate all of these stumbling blocks.”

Authorities reported quarantine facilities were at capacity and hospital beds were more than 90% filled. Lam said late Wednesday that she had contacted with local hotel owners and planned to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for COVID-19 patients in an effort to free up beds for isolation.

Lam made his remarks after Chinese President Xi Jinping reminded Hong Kong’s authorities that the coronavirus’s “overriding duty” was to stabilize and control it.

The city’s retail sector has been pummeled by the increase in cases and tighter rules, with the Shop Management Association (HKRMA) reporting on Thursday that retail traffic was down 40% from December.

“If the epidemic worsens and our rents remain unchanged, we will perish,” warned Annie Tse, chairwoman of the HKRMA. “It’s been over three years since protests and COVID, how much more cash can we burn?” she asked, referring to anti-government protests in 2019.

The group, which represents 9,000 retail shops and employs more than half of the local retail industry, has pushed the government to oblige developers to provide rent assistance for tenants and to include the sector in an anti-epidemic fund.

Retail sales are expected to be flat year on year in the January-June period, according to the HKRMA, and growth may easily go into negative territory in the second half if the current trend continues.

To combat coronavirus epidemics, Hong Kong has adopted the same “dynamic zero” coronavirus approach as mainland China.

However, officials are scurrying due to the volume and speed of the extremely contagious Omicron form. Hospitals are at or near capacity, and large lines have formed outside testing centers, with some individuals having to wait for hours.

  • Reuters