By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong, Feb 18 (EFE).- On a cold, drizzly Hong Kong afternoon this week, dozens of patients lay on gurneys outside the emergency department of a public hospital in Kowloon.
A visitor in his 50s arrives, hoping to deliver some food to his intellectually disabled son who is among those languishing in the makeshift outdoor area.
“He has a fever. The hospital staff don’t dare to feed him because he has a speech disorder. I’m worried. Even if you are well, you’d end up falling ill in such conditions,” he tells Efe.
Similar scenes have been playing out in other local hospitals over the past days as Hong Kong’s healthcare system buckles under the city’s worst Covid-19 outbreak, triggered by the Omicron variant.
Over the last three weeks, the total number of coronavirus cases in Hong Kong since the pandemic began have skyrocketed by more than 60 percent, from some 13,000 to 37,000. For many months, daily caseloads had been in single or double digits, but now they are in the thousands, with 6,116 on Thursday and 3,629 on Friday.
Although the total death toll is still relatively low at 242, Hong Kong’s hospital system is stretched to the limit. By Thursday, the occupancy rate of all 17 public hospitals that offer emergency services was at 95 percent, and seven of them had reached or exceeded capacity.
“The problem we are facing is the magnitude, pace, and the severity of this fifth wave. It has outgrown our capacity,” Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said this week.
According to Dr David Owens, a family physician and honorary assistant clinical professor at Hong Kong University, the city’s relatively low vaccination rate (66.7 percent is fully vaccinated) and its overloaded hospital system are compounding the impact of the highly transmissible Omicron.
“Hong Kong has lots of people for the virus to travel to. The already stressed health system and the low levels of immunity in the vulnerable are factors which impact the damage done by the Omicron wave,” he tells Efe.
Until this outbreak, Hong Kong had been largely successful in keeping the pandemic under control, but at a cost — the city has some of the world’s strictest travel restrictions, which have isolated the Asian business hub and prompted a rising number of foreign firms to relocate.
Now the fifth wave has shaken the foundation of that success and Hong Kong, a densely populated city of 7.5 million people, is facing big challenges in areas such as healthcare, citizen’s livelihoods and its long-held status as an international financial center.
As the authorities struggle to battle the pandemic as well as align with mainland China’s “zero-Covid” policy, scenes of chaos have emerged in Hong Kong, a city usually known for its efficiency.
In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of residents living at public housing blocks have been placed under lockdown lasting anywhere from hours to a week. Mandatory testing orders have sent many citizens queuing for up to six hours at official makeshift testing stations. At supermarkets, food prices are rising as many inbound flights have been banned.
Although health officials are urging people testing positive for Covid but with mild symptoms to stay home due to a shortage of community quarantine facilities, many have swarmed public hospitals.
“They are clogging up the emergency care system. Imagine what would happen if someone has a heart attack. This is very worrying,” a public hospital nurse who gives her name as Yeami tells Efe.
“[The authorities] have no ability to foresee what might happen even though many countries have similar experiences. The chaos is avoidable.”
To battle this fifth wave, the Hong Kong government announced on Feb. 8 its toughest ever restrictions, including reducing the social gathering cap from four to two people.
On Feb. 24, a vaccine pass scheme will take effect — only vaccinated people will be able to visit places such as shopping malls, supermarkets and hair salons.
The measures are meant to combat Hongkongers’ vaccination hesitancy, which is especially strong among the elderly. Currently, about 27 percent of people aged 80 or above are fully vaccinated, compared with 75 percent of people aged 12 and above. Since the announcement of the vaccine pass policy, a growing number of senior citizens have headed for vaccination centers.