HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong parents are being separated from their children and babies who test positive for the coronavirus, compounding public anger over the financial hub's lack of readiness for a major outbreak now sweeping the city.
The densely populated metropolis is in the throes of its worst-ever Covid-19 wave, registering thousands of cases every day as hospitals and isolation units run out of space.
A strict China-style zero-Covid policy kept the virus mostly at bay the last two years at the expense of marooning the city internationally.
But when the highly contagious Omicron variant eventually broke through earlier this year, the authorities were caught flat-footed.
Hong Kong has been ordered by China to stick to its zero-Covid policy and aim to isolate anyone who tests positive even though the number of daily cases has soared far beyond capacity.
Some parents have complained of being unable to accompany their children in hospitals while others have flocked to social media to voice fears of separation if they seek treatment for themselves or their sick young ones.
The revelation has sparked dismay, including among health professionals.
"If a child requires hospitalisation due to Covid-19, it should be made possible for one parent to stay in the same room unless the child's condition is very serious," Dr Siddharth Sridhar, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, wrote on Twitter.
"In times like these, staying rational and compassionate is more important than ever."
Ms Laura, a 32-year-old British-born permanent resident, told AFP her daughter Ava tested positive after she was admitted to hospital on Sunday night (Feb 20) with a fever and laboured breathing.
Ava is now stable in the intensive care unit and will soon be moved to an isolation ward but she will have to recover without her parents for at least seven days.
"I've said I'll sleep in the corridor, on the floor, anywhere," she said, fighting back tears.
Ms Laura and her husband Nick managed to share a quick video call with Ava on Tuesday.
"It was devastating," Ms Laura recalled, asking to use just her first name.
"She's 11 months old, she's aware of her surroundings, separation anxiety is at an all-time high at this age, she was inconsolable, just crying 'Mamma, Mamma'."
Online parent groups have filled with angst, fear and confusion this week.
Ms Kunj Gandhi, the administrator of a popular Facebook support group for people going through quarantine, wrote that many hospitals had stopped allowing parents to stay with their children as wards filled beyond capacity.
"Many (parents) tried to fight or rationalise it but in the end, had to make the heartbreaking decision of leaving their child in hospital so the child could get the treatment he/she needs," she wrote.
On a 17,000-strong mostly Cantonese-speaking Facebook group for mothers looking for coronavirus treatment, many said they had sick children but feared going to hospital.
"My son is 2½ years old and has been feverish since early Monday morning," one member called Shan Hor wrote.
"I don't know what to do. I am so scared."
Others wrote that calls to the health department and government advice lines went unanswered.
Dr Lau Ka-hin, an official from Hong Kong's Hospital Authority, confirmed that children were being separated.
"We tried our best to arrange for the children and the parents who are confirmed Covid-19 positive to be in the same hospital so that the parents can take care of the children," he told reporters on Tuesday.
"But there are many, many cases and many children are infected. It takes time for our staff to arrange a suitable place for them."
Hong Kong authorities are facing rising anger over the lack of preparations to deal with a surge of cases despite two years of hard-fought breathing room earned through the zero-Covid approach.
Usually uncritical newspapers such as Oriental Daily have published multiple editorials this week castigating city leaders, an outspokenness that is increasingly rare in Hong Kong as the authorities crack down on dissent following 2019's democracy protests.
The strict, often changing social distancing measures have been punishing for businesses and especially grim for parents with schooling disrupted for the last two years.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced the summer holidays would be immediately brought forward to make school buildings available for three rounds of compulsory citywide Covid-19 tests in March.
Figures this week showed departures from the city have reached their highest since the pandemic and political crackdown began.
But even then, leaving Hong Kong is not easy with very few international flights.
Some health experts are worried Hong Kong's harsh isolation rules may in fact fuel the spread of the virus.
"My real fear now is parents delaying treatment due to fear of separation," Dr David Owens, a local doctor, wrote on Twitter this week.