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Residents line up to get tested for the coronavirus in Hong Kong, on Jan. 23, 2022.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Nicole Baute is a Canadian writer and university instructor based in Hong Kong.

You may have heard about the hamsters.

Last week, after a pet-store employee and 11 hamsters tested positive for COVID-19, the Hong Kong government called for the “humane dispatch” of imported hamsters and other small pets purchased after Dec. 22. More than 2,000 small mammals have reportedly been culled, despite a lack of clear evidence around whether they can transmit the virus to humans.

But Hong Kong’s pandemic restrictions – forged by a government that has aligned itself with mainland China’s “zero-COVID” approach to eradicate the virus – have also felt downright dystopian for humans. As a Canadian who moved to Hong Kong with my husband in 2019, and had a child there a year later, I have watched in shock as this system robs people of their freedoms.

Residents returning to Hong Kong are being subjected to lengthy hotel quarantines; close contacts of COVID-19 cases are being sent to government facilities; and flight routes are increasingly being banned, leaving travellers stranded. These restrictions meant our families could not travel from Canada to meet our daughter when she was born. We managed this heartbreak with many Zoom calls, at least at first. When she turned one last September and still hadn’t met a single relative, I had a reason to be hopeful: Hong Kong had recently lifted the ban on non-residents from “medium-risk” countries, including Canada. Our parents decided they would brave 14-day hotel quarantines to meet our daughter for the first time.

Then came Omicron. A few days before my parents were scheduled to fly to Hong Kong, the government again banned non-residents from Canada. I wept.

Exasperated, we decided to undertake a last-minute trip home to Canada for Christmas, even though it would mean a 21-day quarantine upon our return to Hong Kong. It seemed worth it, to watch my daughter hug my parents and experience snow. But a few days before our scheduled flight back in early January, Hong Kong abruptly banned residents currently in Canada from returning at all. The same went for residents in seven other countries with high Omicron case counts, including the United States and Britain. The ban was initially for two weeks, but it has since been extended until at least early February.

We knew we ran a risk by travelling amid the Omicron outbreak, but we never imagined Hong Kong would outright abandon us. I should have known better.

And as if compounding the sense of unfairness, we received more bad news while waiting things out in Ontario: Our cat was dying in Hong Kong. He had been our dearest friend and travel companion for nearly 12 years. We felt sick with guilt when we had to say goodbye to him over WhatsApp video, the veterinarian rubbing his chin.

Our hardships pale in comparison to those of people with deeper ties to Hong Kong. Many families have been torn apart, separated from children studying abroad or prevented from entering the city to see dying loved ones. Over the past week, amid a relatively small outbreak of a few hundred Omicron cases, city officials announced new restrictions in a public housing estate in the Kwai Tsing district, locking thousands of residents inside often tiny apartments for five-to-seven-day stretches. The city’s quarantine facilities and hospitals are now filling up with close contacts and COVID-positive “patients,” but most of them are not seriously ill.

While most governments ask people with COVID-19 symptoms to rest at home and self-monitor, the Hong Kong government brings anyone who tests positive to a government facility, even if they’re asymptomatic – and even if they’re children or infants. One parent is usually allowed to accompany a younger child for a hospital stay that can last up to three or four weeks or more, followed by a home quarantine. With Omicron’s increased transmissibility, this potential confinement makes travelling back to Hong Kong with an unvaccinated toddler risky.

And so, we wait. We wait for the Hong Kong government to lift its ban on people coming from Canada and come up with a more realistic strategy to see us through the pandemic.

Hong Kong’s population has already been hit by an exodus of locals fleeing Beijing’s tightening grip; now, amid these restrictions, many of the expats I know are considering leaving, too. Experts within Hong Kong are slowly recognizing that a zero-COVID policy is unsustainable, but it’s unclear whether the city will be able to pivot in time to maintain its reputation as a livable global hub. In the meantime, people are suffering – less from COVID-19 itself, and more from the city’s increasingly erratic attempts to keep it out.

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