Body bags, overflowing morgues and chaotic hospitals: Hong Kong’s pandemic goes critical

Funeral home staffers load a body into a van outside the Caritas Medical Center in Hong Kong, as nurses care for sick patients in a temporary holding area on March 2.
Funeral home staffers load a body into a van outside the Caritas Medical Center in Hong Kong, as nurses care for sick patients in a temporary holding area on March 2. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

HONG KONG — There are no funeral ceremonies for some of the hundreds of elderly Hong Kong residents dying every day of covid. Their bodies are instead sealed in plastic bags and then quickly cremated, freeing up space at the morgue for more arrivals.

Hong Kong — a wealthy financial center — now has the highest covid death rate in the developed world. More than 2,300 people have died since the start of the city’s most recent outbreak, compared with just 213 in the two years prior. Those dying are overwhelmingly elderly, unvaccinated residents, but they also include toddlers and children too young to be immunized.

The outbreak has been an embarrassment for the city’s government, which once prided itself on a “zero covid” policy that kept local infections down. The policy mirrors that of mainland China, where strict social distancing, mass testing, lockdowns and largely closed borders have been effective at preventing the coronavirus from overwhelming the hospital system.

But Hong Kong has been unable to match the mainland approach, lacking the resources to isolate everyone who tests positive or put the city under lockdown. The highly transmissible omicron variant crippled the city’s defenses, affecting the most vulnerable elderly population in particular. In January, less than 1 in 5 residents above the age of 80 had been fully vaccinated with two doses, and almost none had three.

For two years, Hong Kong held off the pandemic. Then, everything fell apart.

That percentage has risen since then, but experts say it is still too little, too late, especially compared with Singapore, South Korea and Japan, where the elderly were a priority for vaccinations.

“It would have been better if [the elderly] were vaccinated in the past eight months, we could have avoided this huge problem now,” Yuen Kwok-yung, a professor at the department of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong and a government adviser on covid, told reporters earlier this month.

“Unfortunately, I think the elderly will pay a huge price” in this wave, he added.

The failure to vaccinate this group has now pushed hospitals, elderly care homes and morgues to a breaking point. Kwok Hoi-bong, chairman of the Funeral Business Association, said that public mortuary refrigerators are so overwhelmed that temporary ones had to be installed outside the facilities.

“The key is how to clear them as quickly,” Kwok said. “There are regrettably more and more bodies.”

Conundrums like these are new to Hong Kong and reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic in cities like New York and Italy’s Bergamo — which are now moving on and reopening to the world.

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

Hospital emergency rooms are also overflowing. One doctor at a public hospital’s emergency ward said in an interview that beds are now crammed close to fit them all in the space. Doctors can barely access the patients, with no way to walk around the beds.

One patient, he said, died in the short time a nurse went off to the hospital pharmacy to pick up some medicine.

“It is impossible to stop,” the doctor said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions from the Hospital Authority.

Elderly care homes have also turned into battlegrounds. Almost 90 percent of the facilities have covid cases, and about 4,700 care home workers have tested positive. Cases are also rising in disabled care homes and among the caretakers of that at-risk population.

At one nursing home, a nurse now has to tend to about 60 elderly residents. None of these facilities are adequately equipped with quarantine rooms, making it impossible to stop others from getting infected.

The crisis has made Hong Kong increasingly dependent on the mainland, which in recent weeks has sent thousands of doctors, nurses, construction workers and experts to the territory. But even they are finding that strategies that worked in cities like Wuhan cannot be immediately applied to Hong Kong at this stage in its outbreak.

Liang Wannian, a mainland Chinese covid expert sent to Hong Kong to help manage the crisis, said in an interview with state media that the city’s main target should be to cut the number of deaths. Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, said Wednesday that while her government was still planning a recently announced mandatory testing exercise, it was not a “top priority.”

Social workers and nurses, meanwhile, find themselves consoling families unable to complete funeral rites and rituals for their elderly relatives. One social worker said an elderly resident died before an ambulance arrived to take him to a hospital, his family forced to watch as he took his last breath. Others can barely glimpse the faces of their loved ones before they are sent to the crematorium.

“The image is really traumatic,” she said.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

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.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.