The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Hong Kong, China’s ‘covid zero’ strategy is falling apart

Health-care workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) attend to a patient displaying covid-19 symptoms at a temporary triage area next to the Caritas Medical Center in Hong Kong on Feb. 16. (Bertha Wang/Bloomberg)

China’s approach to stamping out the coronavirus on the mainland has been brute force: citywide lockdowns, aggressive testing and tracing, and highly restrictive rules. The policy that China calls “covid zero” has tamped down major outbreaks, such as in Xi’an, where residents were in lockdown for a month. But now, China faces a difficult and alarming challenge in the rapid spread of the omicron variant in Hong Kong. The strict measures of the mainland may be difficult to impose on the semiautonomous territory, but without them, the outbreak looks certain to expand.

China fought the virus in Beijing, Xi’an, Tianjin and in Henan province by flooding the zone with testing, tightly restricting flights and mobility, and aggressively isolating those who tested positive, locking down whole cities when necessary. In Xi’an, the strict measures set off a flood of complaints on social media about lack of access to food, supplies and medical care — one pregnant woman was denied entrance to a hospital until she tested negative, and miscarried — but overall China’s methods stopped the spread. While many of China’s 1.4 billion people are vaccinated, preliminary reports suggest that its vaccines are not as protective against omicron. So China has relied on its rigid authoritarian system to erect walls against viral transmission.

Hong Kong is increasingly under the political thumb of Beijing, which imposed a new national security law that has been used to eliminate freedoms that were a signature of the colony before the 1997 British handoff to China. But Hong Kong’s pandemic policies avoided the kind of blanket citywide measures taken on the mainland. Hong Kong used strict social distancing rules, limits on international travel, rapid contact tracing, and mandatory hospital admissions for the infected, all of it called “dynamic covid zero” aimed at reducing infections to zero. For most of 2021, it worked to keep infections low.

Then came omicron. The highly transmissible variant has seeped through the cracks and taken hold. The virus has spread to dozens of senior care homes, where the elderly are especially vulnerable; among those over 70 years old, only 56 percent have had one vaccine dose. The territory’s case counts are skyrocketing, and its hospitals overwhelmed. The Post’s Shibani Mahtani and Theodora Yu found elderly patients lining up outside the Caritas Medical Center, and one patient who tested positive was isolated in a women’s bathroom.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has instructed Hong Kong’s government to prioritize controlling the virus “before anything else.” Advisers being sent from Beijing appear to be telling Chief Executive Carrie Lam to carry out citywide testing. They might seek more severe lockdowns, but that will run into resistance. Hong Kong’s people are more suspicious and distrustful of China since their liberties were so brazenly taken away. There aren’t many good options to slow the spread at this point, and if the virus is not extinguished in Hong Kong, it could spark outbreaks on the mainland. Much is at stake for Hong Kong — and for China.