Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has expressed her “care and concern” for the people of the neighbouring city of Shenzhen, which is headed into lockdown amid a growing COVID-19 outbreak – one many residents blame her city for.
With cases on the rise in the southern tech hub, authorities have ordered all 12.6 million residents to be tested for the virus this week. Public transportation has been suspended, along with dining in at restaurants, and companies have ordered employees to work from home.
Other parts of China, including Shanghai and Jilin province in the northeast, have also announced new measures to counter a recent spike in cases, with the Chinese mainland currently facing its worst outbreak since early 2020.
Many have pointed to Hong Kong – where new cases have been running out of control for weeks now – as the most likely source of infection.
“Shenzhen is being dragged down by Hong Kong,” Jane Shu, a 28-year-old finance worker, told The Globe and Mail Monday. “We never experienced such an outbreak for over two years.”
Liu Lifang, a restaurant owner in Shenzhen’s Luohu district, said the lockdown would likely cut her business by about 60 per cent.
“The control is very strict,” she said. “There are no people on the streets and very few vehicles.”
By comparison, though Hong Kong has implemented physical-distancing policies since the current outbreak began in late December, it has avoided lockdowns and many businesses remain open. And while officials here insist they are following the same “dynamic zero” playbook as mainland China, the quick action taken in Shenzhen and elsewhere after a relatively minuscule number of cases has underlined how much Hong Kong has diverged from the rest of the country in its response.
Shenzhen reported 75 new cases Monday, compared with 26,908 in Hong Kong, along with 286 deaths.
Hong Kong’s outbreak is currently the deadliest and most severe in the world. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have estimated that as many as five million people, 66 per cent of the population, will be infected by the time the current wave ebbs, with as many as 9,000 deaths.
The city’s authorities have faced intense criticism for failing to prepare for an outbreak many experts had warned was inevitable at some point, even with the strict quarantine controls Hong Kong had implemented since 2020. Not only were vaccination rates not high enough, but Hong Kong did not have the capacity to properly apply the Chinese pandemic strategy, which relies on lockdowns and mass testing to quickly detect and isolate cases as soon as infections begin spreading.
Asked why Shenzhen – a city twice the size – was able to conduct mass testing just days after an outbreak began, Ms. Lam said Monday that such procedures have been in place on the mainland “for the past two years and have been effective.
“But whether they can be administered depends on the system of the place concerned and whether there are the resources,” she said, adding that Hong Kong was not able to follow that approach.
David Owens, a family doctor who has written extensively on Hong Kong’s COVID-19 response, said China “has built this incredible structural capacity” in all three areas necessary for quickly detecting and eliminating the virus: testing, contact tracing and isolating positive cases.
“Hong Kong never really had that capacity, it was always a more brittle strategy,” Dr. Owens said. “We just didn’t have the factors necessary for elimination, and this became increasingly obvious as the variants became more infectious.”
This did not stop Hong Kong officials from saying they would follow the Chinese strategy as cases rose in January and February, however. There were numerous reports that a lockdown – either full, or district by district – was imminent, sparking panic buying and hoarding. Mass testing was supposed to take place this month, seven weeks after daily cases exceeded what they currently are in Shenzhen, but the plans were abandoned because of the scale of the outbreak.
“Because we hadn’t recognized the limits of our elimination strategy, we’d done something that was even worse,” said Dr. Owens, which was cling to “zero COVID with no exit plan.”
Unlike Singapore and New Zealand, which focused on keeping infection numbers low while they got their vaccination rates up, Hong Kong only did the former, setting the stage for a more deadly outbreak.
On Monday Ms. Lam said, “We have spent over one year to promote, encourage and coerce people to take the jab. But unfortunately … we have not achieved a high rate of vaccination, especially amongst the elderly.”
Just 30 per cent of Hong Kongers 80 and older have received two vaccine doses. By comparison, almost 95 per cent of New Zealand seniors are fully vaccinated.
In February, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally intervened to urge Hong Kong officials to “prioritize its task to control” the outbreak and “mobilize all resources to do so.” Officials blamed for mishandling outbreaks in other parts of the country have lost their jobs, and Mr. Xi’s comments were seen by many as a rebuke of Ms. Lam and her administration.
Ms. Lam’s term expires this year, and the worsening crisis in Hong Kong may raise more questions about her future. And it is not only top leaders in Beijing who are frustrated with her administration, but also many ordinary Chinese, who took to social media over the weekend to vent their frustration at Hong Kong for recent outbreaks around the country.
“Hong Kong’s economy is so developed, there is no reason for such poor epidemic prevention,” said Ms. Shu, the Shenzhen finance worker. She blamed travellers from Hong Kong for bringing the virus north, pointing to stories of smugglers helping mainland residents in the city cross the border illegally to avoid quarantine.
Ms. Liu, the restaurant owner, said she was also frustrated but sympathized with those who fled the growing outbreak.
“If I was in Hong Kong, I would also want to go back to the mainland, because it’s safer here.”
Alexandra Li contributed to this report from Beijing.
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