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Hong Kong’s coronavirus surge leaves the most vulnerable without a place to isolate

Residents on the rooftop of a residential building in a locked-down part of the Jordon district in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
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HONG KONG — When Chan, a Hong Kong construction worker, tested positive for the coronavirus, he had nowhere to go. The 38-year-old shared a cramped apartment with seven others, including a toddler and his aging father. So he moved into the stairwell.

For 16 days, Chan, who asked that only his last name be used out of embarrassment, followed the city’s mandatory self-isolation policy, living on the roof of the building in a steady drizzle amid unseasonably cold temperatures. He ate instant noodles and defecated in plastic bags. He slept in three jackets and two trousers with a blanket dampened by the rain seeping under the rooftop door. He said he often woke from a dream that “he was naked and freezing.”

An explosion of coronavirus infections has exposed the yawning inequities in Hong Kong, hitting hardest the most vulnerable — seniors, domestic workers and the more than 90,000 lowest-income households who live in cramped, subdivided flats. For them, the mandatory isolation has brought more hardship than the virus.

Photos show the covid-19 emergency in Hong Kong

As cases rise exponentially — more than 8,600 cases were announced on Wednesday compared to just a handful in the weeks before — the territory’s health-care system is overwhelmed, forcing those on the fringes of society into deeply uncomfortable arrangements as they work to break transmission chains.

Some live-in domestic helpers were forced onto the streets after testing positive, shunned by the families they clean, cook and care for. Elderly residents who contracted the virus have been carted back and forth from care homes to hospitals, neither able to bear the burden of isolation and care.

Hong Kong, following the lead of the Chinese government, is committed to a “zero-covid” policy, seeking to eradicate the virus rather than adjusting to a strategy of living with it while mitigating the risk. The strategy has largely worked since the first covid case was detected here more than two years ago, but it has collapsed in the face of the more transmissible omicron variant. The city has recorded 44,000 infections in the past 14 days, a 100-fold increase from around the same time in January, and 153 deaths since the start of 2022 — compared to just 200 deaths over the previous two years.

Authorities have framed the battle against covid as a war. On Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the entire city’s population of 7.5 million would have to be tested three times over the next month — mimicking the citywide mass-testing strategies used in several mainland Chinese cities during the pandemic. No place outside China has been able to mount such comprehensive testing operations.

Lam also extended strict social distancing measures until at least late April, including a ban on dining-in after 6 p.m. and the closure of gyms, beauty salons and other indoor venues.

“We are talking about an emergency,” Lam said. “Given the current circumstances, we must do it, even if there are legal constraints. This is the mind-set we need to have if we are fighting a battle.”

‘I am so afraid’: Coronavirus isolation brings grave new hardships for the world’s poor

This fight has been exceptionally difficult to bear for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Sze Lai-shan, deputy director of the Society for Community Organization, said the group has received 400 calls for help from those self-isolating in subdivided apartments and “cage homes” — bed-sized accommodations that have long been the symbol of Hong Kong’s extreme housing situation.

Those who have fallen ill have waited for days to be taken to a hospital, while surviving without treatment. Families relying on a single blue-collar job for income are struggling economically. “Without resources or support, they have no money and no way to pay rent and buy food,” Sze said. On Wednesday, officials announced the distribution of e-vouchers for all permanent residents to relieve the burden on the unemployed and business owners — but not until April.

Chan was able to move back into the family’s 270-square-foot (25-square-meter) apartment, but only because three more family members had moved onto the stairway and someone needed to take care of his 2-year-old, who was experiencing symptoms. Chan needs resources such as milk for the children, but he doesn’t know where to seek help.

‘There is no work from home’: As Hong Kong moves past pandemic, unsung hygiene army soldiers on

The coronavirus has also exposed the vulnerabilities of migrant workers who do not share the same rights and protections as other residents. Some domestic workers, a backbone of the city’s economy, have been cast out by their employers after testing positive. Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, a spokeswoman for the Mission for Migrant Workers, said about 20 domestic workers contacted them for a place to sleep or food as employers insist they isolate for 14 days.

Because some of the helpers share bedrooms with the seniors or children of their employers, they were asked to leave and isolate elsewhere. But public hospitals have neared maximum capacity and were unable to take in those with mild symptoms, forcing them into tents and sleeping bags in parks near the hospitals, she said.

“It is the employer’s responsibility also to make sure they [domestic workers] are put in a safe place … but they do not think about this anymore,” Abdon-Tellez said.

The government has announced plans to increase the number of quarantine facilities across the territory, but with mass testing expected to uncover hundreds of thousands more cases, experts say the facilities remain woefully inadequate.

Deaths, meanwhile, have disproportionately affected the elderly, particularly those in care homes. Of the first 102 people who died in this latest pandemic wave, about 60 percent were residents of care homes. The vaccination rate among those age 80 and above still lags significantly compared to the rest of the world at just 28 percent.

Unable to keep up with official guidelines that constantly change, employees at care homes have had to improvise, finding makeshift quarantine rooms for both residents and co-workers.

“What is considered a clean zone? How to move the seniors from room to room while we sanitize and prepare quarantine rooms? I feel tired just thinking about it,” said one employee at an elderly home where several residents tested positive. She gave only her last name, Hui, over concerns that she might lose her job.

The situation is spiraling as more caretakers at the homes and residents test positive, said Chua Hoi-wai, chief executive at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. He added that the government should provide temporary accommodations for staff at these homes.

Lam, the city’s chief executive, has urged society to stay united in the fight against the virus. “After the storm, we will see a rainbow,” she said.

Chan is less convinced.

“I feel helpless, like it is the end of the world,” he said. “But I also need to smile in front of my family and help with chores as best as I can.”

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