By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong, Mar 1 (EFE).- Seven hours before boarding a plane Tuesday to Melbourne with her 10-year-old daughter, Hong Kong bank worker Katie Cheung headed to her local pharmacy hoping to do some last-minute shopping.
To her surprise, the shop was closed. She then went to a supermarket nearby, only to see many empty shelves as people went on a buying frenzy in fear of a citywide lockdown.
“Things are getting crazier and crazier here. I’m out of here. I feel sad and glad at the same time,” she told EFE.
“For months I’ve been dragging my feet on migrating to Australia. It’s tough. My husband has to stay in Hong Kong for work. I have to separate from him for several years before I get an Australian passport. But I’m determined now. My children will have a better future elsewhere,” she said.
The 42-year-old mother of two is among the burgeoning number of Hong Kong residents quitting the city as it adopts increasingly stringent measures to combat a sudden spike in coronavirus infections.
A record daily high of 34,466 new cases were logged Tuesday, a wild contrast to the usual single or double-digit daily figures recorded before January. The total number of cases since the pandemic began now amounts to about 205,000, which exceeds mainland China’s official total of 109,000.
Although only 600-plus people have died in the fifth wave of infections, the city’s hospitals are swarmed by Covid-19 patients, bringing the public healthcare system within a whisker of collapse.
Carrie Lam, top leader of the semi-autonomous Chinese city, recently compared the fight against Covid-19 to a “wartime environment.” She and other officials insist on adhering to the zero Covid-19 strategy employed by mainland China.
Health chief Sophia Chan said Monday that a territory-wide lockdown “has not been ruled out”, contrary to Lam’s previous claims that there was no such plan. Hours later, local newspaper Sing Tao Daily quoted a source as saying that a nine-day lockdown may be imposed from Mar. 17 to accommodate a territory-wide mandatory testing scheme.
The daunting possibility of the fast-moving, densely populated Asian financial hub going into lockdown – at a time when many other countries are gradually opening up – is adding to a growing list of reasons for many residents to leave Hong Kong. The territory has been suffering from the dual punch of the pandemic and political instability over the past two years.
Since Beijing imposed a controversial national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, and amid strict quarantine rules for travelers under the pandemic, tens of thousands of residents have left, either temporarily or permanently.
And as local Covid-19 infections dramatically shot up in the last few weeks, smashing the city’s impressive track record of keeping the virus under control for months, social distancing and travel restrictions were further tightened. Thus, more people have been driven away.
According to share market analyst David Webb, in February alone, Hong Kong saw a net outflow of about 71,000 residents. This marks the biggest monthly exodus since January 2020. The European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macau also said more than 10 percent of EU citizens living in Hong Kong have quit the city over the past year.
In the latest flight of residents, one of the biggest push factors for many locals and expats are the compulsory Covid-19 testing for all 7.4 million people in Hong Kong to be launched this month. Those who test positive will be sent to hospitals or government-run quarantine facilities, some of which are equipped with communal squat toilets.
“I’m more scared by having to stay in an isolation center than the virus itself,” Cheung said.
Parents are also frustrated by the government’s decision to bring forward school children’s summer breaks to this and next months, during which bans on private gatherings of more than two households are in force. Their worries have been further exacerbated by a recent news report on an infected 11-year-old baby isolated alone in a hospital.
Meanwhile, more young Hongkongers may leave the city beyond the pandemic. The United Kingdom announced a decision Thursday to relax migration rules.
Under the change, Hong Kong citizens born on or after Jul. 1, 1997, the day the former British colony’s sovereignty was handed over to China, can apply for a British National (Overseas) passport if they have at least one parent holding such a passport. Prior to the change, only adult children of a parent with such a passport could apply. The document entitles holders to live and work in the UK and eventually apply for citizenship.
This is good news for people like Cheung, whose elder teenage daughter is currently studying in the UK. But she said she also wonders about the implications of her home city.