The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hong Kong’s ‘zero-covid’ policy buckles under the onslaught of omicron — but authorities won’t let it go

Police seal off a residential building at the Kwai Chung public housing complex in Hong Kong on Jan. 22. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg News)

HONG KONG — Ann Chan spent the last week of January locked down with her husband and two sons in their tiny 300-square-foot apartment.

Her public housing complex, Kwai Chung, had turned into a dystopian tableau. Locked down by the government over fears of a coronavirus outbreak, residents could leave only for daily tests administered by hazmat-suited health workers in blue pop-up tents. With all supplies cut off, meals — oily and barely edible — were distributed by authorities. Garbage piled up “like a mountain,” said Chan, 37, with some of the bags leaking brown liquid all over the floor.

It felt like “we were fighting [the virus] like cornered beasts,” she said.

The seven-day lockdown of Kwai Chung, the culling of thousands of hamsters, the suspension of flights from major cities and other social distancing measures were meant to buy Hong Kong time against the pandemic’s most transmissible variants and get the city back to zero infections.

They did not.

Hong Kong is clinging to ‘zero covid’ and extreme quarantine. Talent is leaving in droves.

Hong Kong is instead fighting its most severe battle against the coronavirus since it was first detected more than two years ago, pushing the government’s pandemic strategy of “zero covid” to the breaking point. The program to throttle the virus that has worked, so far, for mainland China is falling apart in Hong Kong, which lacks the ability to enforce the sort of extreme lockdowns used in Wuhan and Xian. Meanwhile, the effort is destroying the territory’s role as an open international city.

By contrast, once-restrictive countries such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are moving to live with covid, within limits, by reopening borders and easing social distancing rules.

“There is no doubt that we are at an absolute critical juncture,” said Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Clinical Medicine. “We are forced by a large covid-19 outbreak to be very practical, in terms of trying to achieve what we can achieve, rather than really being bent on achieving zero cases.”

Isolation centers are filling up, and lockdowns are proving ineffective as the number of new coronavirus cases climbs. More than 1,200 new infections were recorded over the past two days. Almost 4,000 people are quarantined in government-run centers across the city.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong authorities further tightened social distancing rules, limiting outdoor gatherings to two people and closing more venues, including religious sites and hair salons. For the first time, restrictions will now also cover private property, with a maximum of two families allowed to gather in a residence at one time.

“At this moment, we still feel that this is the best strategy for Hong Kong,” said Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive.

The push for zero comes from Beijing, which has tightened control over once-autonomous Hong Kong. Chinese state media and officials from Beijing have warned that a deviation from the policy would be a disaster for the city. Hong Kong remains closed to the mainland, and reopening that border is the stated priority of the government.

Hong Kong first detected the omicron variant in two flight attendants just before the new year and after months without community infections. Last month, a cross-infection at a quarantine hotel sparked a new string of local cases. Cases have since mushroomed across the city, including some spread by a government official who held a birthday party attended by 170 guests.

Since Jan. 5, flights have been suspended from eight countries including Britain and United States. Strict social distancing measures, including a ban on restaurant dining after 6 p.m. and gym closures, have been in place for the past month.

Officials urged residents to stay home during the three-day Lunar New Year holiday last week to no avail. Families visited their relatives and gathered to celebrate the most important festival of the year.

Now, mandatory testing sites across the city are the only packed venues amid the worry over soaring coronavirus cases.

Unlike much of the rest of the world, Hong Kong never saw covid overwhelm its hospitals because it was so successful in containing the virus over the past two years. But Hong Kong has not succeeded in what is allowing many countries to open up — vaccinations.

Only 22 percent of people older than 80 in Hong Kong have two doses of a coronavirus vaccine, and just half of those between 70 and 79 are vaccinated.

Authorities have struggled to incentivize shots, in part because life remains largely unchanged regardless of vaccination status. There are no restrictions on the unvaccinated, and all covid cases are hospitalized in Hong Kong.

Starting Feb. 24, however, the government will mandate vaccinations for almost all venues in Hong Kong, including malls and supermarkets, hoping that this will finally encourage vaccination by making life inconvenient for those who refuse.

Fatigue over the government’s approach has begun to set in. Scarred by the 2003 SARS epidemic that killed almost 300 here, Hong Kong residents were quick to mask up and stay indoors at the start of the pandemic. But most of those vaccinated now fear the harsh isolation that would come with a positive test more than they fear the virus.

According to a study conducted by the Hong Kong Democratic Party in late January, 65 percent of 603 respondents said the city should prepare a strategy to live with the virus, compared with 42 percent in November.

“We saw through the virus — it is not a dystopian virus that will destroy mankind,” said Albert Au-yeung, a 30-year-old Hong Kong resident who said he is not avoiding gatherings or crowds. “Each year, we are adapting more to the virus. Why should we walk such an extreme path?”

A cartoon in a local newspaper summed up the frustration. A man standing outside a temple, the ground littered with leaves, asks his master how long he needs to go on sweeping them.

He responds: “You are not sweeping leaves. This is ‘dynamic covid-zero,’ understand?”

Read more:

Singapore starts to reopen for travel, as ‘zero covid’ clips wings of rival Hong Kong

Hong Kong hamster massacre: Residents resist ‘zero covid’ city’s pet project

Hong Kong bans all flights from U.S. and seven other countries as omicron spreads

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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