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Confusion and Chaos in Hong Kong as Leaders Fumble Virus Response

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Confusion and Chaos in Hong Kong as Leaders Fumble Virus Response

HONG KONG – As infections rose in the city week-on-week, Hong Kong residents witnessed a change in the government’s coronavirus policies.

First, officials said they did not have a plan for social distancing in January, then immediately closed bars and gyms and banned flights from eight countries. In February, officials vowed to test every resident, then this month abandoned those plans. And on Thursday, public beaches were closed three days after city leader Carrie Lam was expected to ease Covid-19 restrictions.

As Hong Kong this week surpassed one million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic – a staggering number for a city that had single-digit daily cases for most of the health crisis – residents say The government’s watchful virus policies have created confusion and chaos. Unable to adhere to the mainland’s zero-Covid strategy, Hong Kong officials have provided inconsistent and conflicting details of how the city will deal with its current outbreak.

Now some fear the government’s failure to bring the virus under control has intensified Beijing’s creeping authority over semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

Since the outbreak began, China has looked to Hong Kong as necessary reinforcements, including traditional Chinese medicine and donations of protective medical gear. Chinese epidemiologists were sent to advise health officials, and more than a thousand technicians and health care workers have been sent for testing and patient care.

A temporary bridge has been built to connect Hong Kong with the Chinese city of Shenzhen to move supplies and manpower more quickly. Dozens of construction workers have been sent to build temporary government quarantine facilities and makeshift hospitals.

Many pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong have thanked the “homeland” for the help. Hong Kong’s administration’s chief secretary, John Lee, equated the outbreak of 2019’s pro-democracy protests, which led to widespread action from Beijing and helped introduce national security legislation.

“Whenever Hong Kong finds it difficult to overcome on its own those enormous difficulties that exceed our capabilities, the country will provide us with the strongest and most reliable support,” Mr. Lee told an English-language newspaper China Wrote in Daily. by the Communist Party.

Others see the intervention as the latest sign that the city is irreversibly being brought under Beijing’s yoke, despite promises that it will retain a degree of independence.

“The people of Hong Kong are very unhappy about Carrie Lam and the government because their incompetence has given the central government an excuse to step in and take more control,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

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Some of the policy decisions of Mrs Lam and other officials have appeared at times as a reaction to increasing pressure from the mainland. When cases jumped in mid-February and overburdened hospitals began treating patients on the sidewalk, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, warned Hong Kong authorities that “controlling the epidemic as quickly as possible is an extreme task.” priority.”

Several days later, Mrs Lam announced plans to test every resident starting in March. The city was waiting for more details that never came. Instead, Hong Kong’s health secretary said the government could not rule out a lockdown with mass testing, contradicting Mrs Lam’s earlier statements.

Hanging with few details and fearing the kind of lockdown that has left people stranded at home with little food on the mainland, many Hong Kong residents rushed to grocery stores to buy essentials. As a sense of unease, Mrs. Lam stopped giving regular news conferences. Criticism from her fellow pro-Beijing allies mounted as the death rate from the virus among older people, a large number of whom are unaffiliated in Hong Kong, has become one of the highest in the world.

“The whole approach of the government looks chaotic,” said Lau Siu-cai, a Hong Kong scholar who advised Beijing on the policy. “The objective to achieve is not clear and the strategy used appears to be unstable and variable.”

“You can see complaints all around Hong Kong these days,” he said. “It worries Beijing.”

Mrs Lam reappeared to the media last week with a promise to better communicate with the public through daily news conferences. But when asked for more details about mass testing, he said he did not have any. A day later, when asked again, a desperate Mrs. Lam scolded a reporter for taking “unnecessarily” time.

“People like Carrie Lam and other Hong Kong officials always anticipate Beijing’s wishes,” said Willie Lam, an assistant professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Beijing’s impression is now more important than local public opinion for many prominent Hong Kong officials.”

Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong and a new “patriots only” city legislature have ensured that the voices of any dissent in the once freewheeling city are silenced. Too many people are at a loss to understand the swings in policy decisions now made behind closed doors.

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As an example, Hong Kong has banned airlines that bring in four or more passengers who test positive for the virus, but The number of daily local cases is already in the thousands, and some of the restricted countries have fewer cases. Nevertheless, officials continue to stress the need to send those who test positive to government quarantine centres, even if Hong Kong has now registered over one lakh cases.

Researchers estimate that half of Hong Kong’s population may have already been infected.

“We feel really confused and frustrated and tired of all these so-called new policies,” said Yvonne Kai, a 46-year-old baker in Hong Kong’s busy Wan Chai district. “Different people tell us different policies every day.”

“I feel like we can’t trust the government,” she said.

Last week, as officials worried about the capacity of public morgues and the lack of coffins, the government suddenly announced that hair salons would reopen, while bars, gyms, outdoor playgrounds and schools would remain closed. Regina Ip, a legislator and adviser to Mrs Lam, praised the decision on Twitter.

“I urge the government to reopen golf courses, tennis courts and other facilities for no-contact sports,” wrote Mrs Ip.

Yet when Mrs Lam addressed the local press on Monday, she seemed no closer to providing clarity on the city’s virus policies. Instead, she appeared to be a message to Chinese authorities, who recently locked down millions of citizens in neighboring Shenzhen after hundreds of coronavirus cases were discovered.

“If you want us to follow what Shenzhen is doing,” said Mrs. Lam, “I’m afraid we are not ready.”

On Thursday, Mrs Lam told the media that she would also review several of the city’s strict social distancing rules. As she talked, tall barriers were being erected on public beaches she had promised to avoid a few days earlier.

“I have a very strong feeling that people’s tolerance is fading,” she said.

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