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Hong Kong’s Covid crackdown empties stores and closes exodus

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Hong Kong’s Covid crackdown empties stores and closes exodus

HONG KONG – As the government in Hong Kong struggles to contain the city’s worst COVID outbreak ever, some residents panicked. They have emptied supermarket shelves of vegetables and meat. They have raided drugstores for pain and fever medicine. Those who could afford it jumped on out-of-town flights.

Tens of thousands of new Omicron cases are being reported every day, and deaths are increasing. Hong Kong’s concern is not just about the explosion of infections, but also about what the government will do next. Mixed messages from officials have left residents wondering: Will there be a lockdown? Will we be sent to the isolation facility? Will our children be taken from us if our children test positive?

Under pressure from Beijing to eliminate the infection, Hong Kong authorities have vowed to test all 7.4 million residents. Such an operation would require restricting the movement of people, but the government has been unclear about whether it would impose a lockdown, and if so, when. However, only one likely closed the run on groceries and other supplies.

“I’ve lived here most of my life, and it’s never been like the panic witnessed by the public,” said Alan Zeman, 72, property developer and advisor to Hong Kong leader Carey. Lam.

The city’s death rate from the virus is currently one of the highest in the world, three per 100,000 residents, largely because many older Hong Kongers are uninsured. (Since the pandemic began, COVID has killed Americans at far higher rates than people in other wealthy countries, as well as in Hong Kong.)

Hong Kong is one of the last places in the world that is still trying to eradicate the coronavirus rather than live with it. It has doubled down on the strategy of isolating every case found regardless of severity and symptoms and enforcing quarantine orders on those with close contacts, despite the lack of facilities and workers. Rising infections, as well as government measures, have already overwhelmed hospitals, morgues, ambulance services and quarantine facilities, and forced unwise post offices, banks and even prisons to cut services .

Residents are particularly concerned with the government’s approach to children testing positive for the coronavirus. Two weeks ago, there was a stir in the city after health workers picked up an infected 11-month-old girl from her parents and isolated her at a hospital. A parent is usually allowed to accompany a child, but hospitals are overcrowded, with hundreds of children stuck in COVID isolation wards. Officials later said they would organize video chats to allow hospitalized children to be in touch with their family members.

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Pastor Kayla Tong, 35, said she sent her 2-year-old son to a hospital last month after he tested positive with a high fever and convulsions. He remained alone in the isolation ward for two days.

A doctor had initially warned her that her son could be kept in isolation for weeks due to the hospital’s Covid-19 protocol, which requires patients to test negative before being discharged. This caused Ms Tong to worry about her son’s mental health.

“How can children be kept there for so long without parents, just because of the quarantine measures? I cannot accept it,” she said.

By the third day, the hospital allowed Ms. Tong to take her son home to recover; Her condition had improved and her hospital bed was needed. The government later said it would temporarily relax its policy so that only children with severe coronavirus symptoms needed to be hospitalised.

Foreign governments have also responded to Hong Kong’s pandemic measures with concern. The United States consulate warned Americans not to travel to Hong Kong last week, citing the risk of family separation. The French consul general acknowledged that the latest measures “will profoundly affect the lives of all, with the cost of payment that has been rising steadily for two years, especially for families with children.”

Consular officials are working to help migrants find travel arrangements to leave Hong Kong, which has banned flights to nine countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. The Swiss consulate arranged a flight for the citizens. The Irish consulate said it had “never experienced this level of demand for consular service for those wishing to leave.”

Hong Kong, once called the “world city of Asia”, now has some strict travel restrictions, which sets it apart from the rest of the world. The new uncertainty has prompted the largest exodus of residents since the early days of the pandemic in 2020, with more than 70,000 net departures last month, according to data from the Department of Immigration.

Weeks ago, Cordula Kotanko, a German management consultant, and her husband were thinking of leaving Hong Kong as their three daughters struggled with distance learning during the pandemic. They were also worried about the possibility of being caught in the lockdown across the city.

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Then, late last month, the government said it would begin summer vacation in March and April, about four months earlier than usual. Officials said they planned to use the schools for mass testing and isolation of the sick. This prompted Ms Kotanko and her husband to reconcile their family and fly to Singapore.

“At the time, we only wanted to get out of Hong Kong to act so that we could make decisions and not make decisions for us,” Ms Kotanko said. “What we have experienced in the last two years is that children are always at the fore in Hong Kong and children face a lot of epidemics.”

The outbreak and government policies have been particularly hard on the city’s working class. Many service workers have lost their jobs as thousands of businesses went bankrupt. Families living in tiny apartments have been forced to choose between staying home and infecting relatives or sleeping elsewhere.

The state of grocery stores and pharmacies may be the biggest example of how this international hub is faring under this Omicron boom.

One of Hong Kong’s best-known drugstore chains, Mannings, has had to temporarily close dozens of its stores. According to its website various painkillers and COVID test kits are out of stock. Some other drugstores in the city do not have sanitary napkins and tampons.

ParkShop, a supermarket chain, has limited individual purchases of packaged food, toilet paper and medicine. At Welcome, another supermarket chain, employees put up small notes on shelves, asking patrons not to hoard vegetables, meat and eggs.

Last Tuesday, Betty Xiao, a graduate student, arrived at the largest supermarket in Tai Po, a neighborhood in northern Hong Kong where she lives, after her roommate told her the government might announce a lockdown. Ms. Xiao wanted to stock up on food in case the online delivery of groceries was disrupted.

As she approached the shop, she saw a line of customers, who were walking down the street. Inside, she said, she and others were snatching items straight from cardboard boxes that the staff hadn’t even put on the shelves. Ms. Xiao said she was able to grab the last bag of bread.

“It was a very tense atmosphere,” Ms. Xiao said. “I had to be fast.”

joy dong Contributed to reporting.

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