Hong Kong's top scientsts urge shift from Beijing's zero-Covid

People queue at a Covid-19 testing station in Tsing Yi, Hong Kong, on March 2, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong's top scientists urged the government on Tuesday (March 22) to transition from China's zero-Covid strategy before the next outbreak unless the financial hub wants to be a "closed port forever".

Hong Kong used strict travel curbs to keep the virus at bay for two years but these left Asia's world city increasingly isolated and a deadly Omicron outbreak since January has led to an exodus of residents and businesses fleeing its mounting list of restrictions.

The massive surge in cases has ravaged the city's healthcare system and left it with one of the highest Covid-19 fatality rates in the developed world, with the government facing criticism for failing to vaccinate its elderly population in time.

On Monday, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam announced easing travel restrictions in April, but the government did not provide a comprehensive roadmap out of the crisis beyond reducing quarantine periods for inbound travellers and opening flight paths.

"The past two months were a very painful experience of loss for us and it does not allow us to wait," top epidemiologist Gabriel Leung, who leads a team of scientists working on the virus, told reporters on Tuesday.

Scientists estimate that around 4.4 million people in densely populated Hong Kong - or 60 per cent of the population - have been infected so far during the Omicron wave.

Official figures have clocked over a million cases and nearly 6,000 deaths since January - primarily among the unvaccinated elderly population.

Prof Leung, dean of the University of Hong Kong's medical school and a government expert frequently cited by Mrs Lam, stressed the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted while saying Hong Kong must begin living with the virus unless it "remains a closed port forever". He added that endemicity is the "safest road because we do not know if the next new variant is weaker or stronger than those we have seen".

In line with China, where a zero-Covid strategy has seen snap lockdowns imposed on millions of residents after even a handful of cases are detected, Hong Kong has maintained some of the world's toughest pandemic restrictions.

Beijing began remoulding Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image following massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019, instituting a sweeping national security law to crush dissent.

A move away from a zero-tolerance strategy would mean diverging from China's path.

Last week, President Xi Jinping urged China to "stick to" zero-Covid even as several cities forced tens of millions of residents to stay in their homes with cases rising to their highest number since the early days of the pandemic.

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