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Hong Kong’s omicron wave is rewinding the city back to the start of the pandemic

Customers shop at a supermarket, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Sha Tin district, in Hong Kong
Reuters/Lam Yik
A supermarket in the Sha Tin district in Hong Kong in February 2022.
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Hong Kong experienced the pandemic earlier than most other places, with long queues to buy medical masks, and  a run on toilet paper in January 2020. More than two years on, a local wave of covid cases is bringing back the fears and uneasiness of that time.

Hong Kong today (Feb. 9) reported 1,161 new covid cases, the first time the city has recorded more than 1,000 cases in a single day. Two people also died of covid, Hong Kong’s first covid deaths in six months. While these may seem tiny numbers compared with the worst days in New York or London, when new cases were in the tens of thousands, Hong Kong’s approach has involved keeping cases as low as possible. As a result, the territory has managed to keep deaths to a little over 200 for the whole pandemic, in a city of 7.4 million.

Due in part to that victory, it didn’t push vaccination as hard as it could have for the elderly, which means only half of people over 70 have had two doses, and just a quarter of those over 80. Because of the covid-zero strategy, there is also little natural immunity. That means a serious local outbreak spells real danger for the city’s oldest residents.

“Should we have a large wave, our healthcare system will collapse without question,” warned Siddharth Sridhar, an assistant professor in the University of Hong Kong microbiology department, in a Facebook post last month. A top health official at today’s covid briefing said the city’s public hospitals are “severely overloaded.”

This week, Hong Kongers are also experiencing and sharing images of empty-looking shelves and more expensive vegetables. While many countries, including the US and UK, are finally beginning to accept the idea of living with covid, and a new version of normalcy, Hong Kong isn’t there yet.

Did a hotel quarantine fuel Hong Kong’s covid wave?

For much of the pandemic, Hong Kong’s strict covid border rules kept the city isolated, but life inside the territory could continue pretty much as normal, after a period of social restrictions that was lifted by July 2020. Elsewhere, by contrast, there were recurring lockdowns and fierce repeated waves.

At the end of 2020, as a new variant emerged in the UK, Hong Kong moved to a three-week mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals, up from two weeks. But that lengthy hotel quarantine, combined with 2021’s highly contagious omicron strain, may have contributed to the current wave of community transmission. A cluster in the city’s public housing estates was linked to a woman who appeared to have contracted covid late in her hotel quarantine stay.

Hong Kong still maintains a “covid-zero” policy. But the city has already eased some rules, such as sending asymptomatic covid cases to quarantine facilities rather than to the hospital. Hong Kong has also reduced the quarantine on arrival from three weeks to two weeks. At the same time, the government has tightened other rules, including barring gatherings between more than two households, effective Thursday (Feb. 10). From Feb. 24, only vaccinated people will be allowed to access restaurants, supermarkets and malls, among other places.

While Hong Kongers seemed to support the government’s covid handling, the public appears far unhappier now.

That does not mean that the government, which is elected by a small handful of the Hong Kongers who live in a city that has become increasingly authoritarian during the pandemic, will change its stance. Chinese state media has warned sternly that Hong Kong must not adopt a “lying flat” attitude, or one of resignation, toward covid, and Hong Kong’s top executive has said the policy cannot change right now.

“When vaccination rates increase, when omicron disappears and other things happen, then, of course, we will continue to revisit our strategy,” said chief executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday.

Around the city, there are now long lines of people queuing up for vaccinations and covid tests as an increasing number of buildings and neighborhoods get slapped with compulsory testing orders.

Trucker quarantines in China lead to supermarket shortages

China’s strict covid rules have the ability to impact supply chains globally, with partial port shutdowns in response to a single covid case, or truckers stuck in quarantine. Hong Kong, which relies on the mainland for 90% (pdf) of its vegetable supply, always stood to be more affected than most places, particularly as covid scrutiny tightened around the Lunar New Year holiday and the Beijing Olympics.

This week, several truck drivers who shuttle vegetables from mainland China to Hong Kong tested positive, causing delivery disruptions and slashing the city’s vegetable supply to one-third of its normal amount on Monday (Feb. 7).

According to (link in Chinese) the Container Transportation Employees General Union, cargo capacity can return to normal levels within a week if no additional cross-border truck drivers test positive for covid in the coming days.

Vegetable prices have quickly shot up across the city. At one market, one catty (around 1.3 lbs) of pea shoots was selling for HK$140 (US$18), double the usual rate. In another neighborhood, cherry tomatoes were readily available but 20% more expensive than the day before. Fear of continuing shortages and further price rises likely spurred some shoppers to make a frantic dash for their greens at supermarkets, however. One photo of a man wheeling a shopping cart stuffed full of cabbage quickly made the rounds online (link in Chinese).

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