Hong Kong braces for lockdown, mass testing as daily Covid-19 cases breach 55,000

Waves of panic-buying stripped supermarkets and pharmacies of supplies as new cases ballooned on March 1. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong reported a record of 55,353 daily new infections on Wednesday (March 2) as the city’s spiralling outbreak sees thousands of residents flee while those remaining strip shelves of food and medicine. 

The figure is up from 32,597 a day earlier. Health authorities also announced 117 deaths, mostly people from care facilities, and said there are 64 patients in critical condition in hospital.

The continued spike in cases comes amid growing chaos and confusion around the city’s plan to test the whole population of 7.4 million three times in March, with duelling local media reports about the length and strictness of the lockdown to occur while testing is conducted.  

On Wednesday afternoon, after over a week out of the public eye, Chief Executive Carrie Lam sought to reassure residents during a television interview from a railroad yard, after the first train-load of goods from mainland China to the city arrived as part of a new program to stabilise import flows. 

China will ensure Hong Kong has enough food and other supplies during the Covid-19 outbreak, said Mrs Lam, urging residents to stop their panicked purchasing. There will also be unlimited supplies of medical equipment available, she said. 

Mrs Lam acknowledged that there won’t be enough beds to isolate everyone found to be infected with the virus during the city-wide testing program, though she vowed to make the process as quick and comprehensive as possible.

Patients lie on beds at a makeshift treatment area outside a hospital in Hong Kong, on March 2, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

People will be able to get their needs met even during the mass testing effort, she said, ruling out a "wholesale" city lockdown, though she did not clarify how the mass testing would be conducted and when.

The information vacuum has exacerbated deteriorating conditions in Hong Kong as its outbreak becomes one of the deadliest in the world. The city’s loss of control is a real-world illustration of the limits of the Covid-19 Zero strategy in the face of more transmissible variants like Omicron.  

US warnings

The uncertainty about how residents will be treated, and rising case and death rates, led US authorities to warn against travel to the city. The US State Department raised its travel advisory to a Level 4 - Do Not Travel - because of Covid-19 and related restrictions, while the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention bumped its travel alert two places to "high". 

The zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 by Hong Kong and China "severely impacts travel and access to public services", the US Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau said in an email.

"We especially want to note for families considering travelling to or residing in Hong Kong that in some cases, children in Hong Kong who test positive have been separated from their parents and kept in isolation until they meet local hospital discharge requirements."

Local media reports have differed on the details of the upcoming lockdown, sowing confusion. HK01 reported on Wednesday that there would be a four-day limited lockdown at the end of March, and Cable TV said the city will set a time limit for residents to buy groceries.

Stories from Sing Tao Daily and the South China Morning Post a day earlier triggered panic-buying with details of a proposed nine-day Covid-19 compulsory testing blitz later this month.

The preliminary plan is to test the financial hub's 7.4 million people from March 26 to April 3, the HK01 said, citing people it did not identify.

The Hong Kong government, which will consult Beijing before finalising the plan, has taken into account expert opinions that it will be most effective to conduct the mass testing when the outbreak "naturally eases", according to the report.

High death rate

The city has been grappling with its worst coronavirus outbreak to date, with one of the world's highest Covid-19 death rates.

Waves of panic-buying have stripped supermarkets and pharmacies of supplies as new cases ballooned from a few hundred a day to more than 32,000 on Tuesday.

Hong Kong has contacted major supermarkets, urging them to ensure a sufficient supply of goods, according to a government statement on Tuesday.

The government has also been working with neighbouring Guangdong province and Shenzhen "to broaden the means to ensure the stable supplies of fresh food, vegetables and other goods", it said.

Customers queue up to pay at a supermarket in Hong Kong, on March 2, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Many among the anxious population, which just two months ago were living in largely virus-free conditions, have had enough.

There were 43,689 net departures from the city in the past two weeks, the most since the start of the pandemic, according to government data.

In a bear case – where the Covid-19 outbreak peaks late in the second quarter – Bank of America  analysts estimate 2 per cent to 3 per cent of Hong Kong’s population could depart every month. 

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