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Canadian Head of Asia trading for National Bank, Colin Embree, pictured, is being held with his wife and young son in a Hong Kong quarantine camp.Handout

A Canadian bank executive has been caught up in a debate over Hong Kong’s quarantine policy for travellers from Africa and the Indian sub-continent after returning to the wealthy financial centre from South Africa, only to be sent with his family to a dirty police camp for 14 days.

Colin Embree is the head of Asia for National Bank of Canada. He normally lives in a 2,000-square-foot apartment in the city – but he, his wife and their young son are now in Pat Heung, a training centre for a police youth group with hostel-style accommodation. It is air conditioned, although the beds are plywood and covered with a thin mattress. Before staff provided a mop and bucket, the floors left his two-year-old son’s feet blackened and covered in debris. The pillow was mouldy and a plastic bowl they were given to eat with was speckled with a black substance.

“The filth was unbelievable,” Mr. Embree said, adding: “We have no business being here.” His wife, Vega Hall-Martin Embree, is South African, and the family spent seven weeks there, much of it under a strict lockdown, before returning home to Hong Kong, where they tested negative for COVID-19.

They were sent to the police camp under a local policy that has imposed special requirements on people from a small number of developing countries.

While people coming from many wealthy countries hit hard by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have been allowed to quarantine at home – including the U.S. and Britain – Hong Kong health authorities have required travellers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and South Africa to go to government-approved quarantine centres.

It’s a policy that has drawn formal protest from South Africa, whose consul-general, Madoda Ntshinga, has asked Hong Kong officials “to reconsider their decision to quarantine South Africans in government facilities if it is based on low level of COVID-19 testing,” he said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

“The Director-General of the WHO is on record commending South Africa for a sterling job our country has done so far in dealing with COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly I am not happy with HK government’s reason behind classification of South Africa in this regard.”

The Hong Kong department of health, in a statement, said it “will continue the current arrangement” but adjust it “in a timely manner if necessary.”

The department called South Africa and the other countries “areas of unknown epidemic situation,” pointing to testing rates that are comparably lower than elsewhere. Compared to Hong Kong, South Africa has done a third as many tests per capita.

Hong Kong government statistics also show that a single airline — Qatar Airways, with its Flight 818 from Doha — has brought 10 of the 13 confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases that landed in the city since May 4. The other cases came from Los Angeles and London.

Mr. Embree and his family were on Flight 818 on May 14, although no cases emerged on that day.

The Hong Kong policy has been challenged in court by an accountant from Pakistan who called it racially discriminatory. Last week, however, Hong Kong judge Anderson Chow Ka-ming dismissed that allegation, saying the policy was not discriminatory because it applied to travellers from certain areas regardless of race, and was an acceptable restriction of liberty in the face of a deadly pandemic.

It’s also not clear why people like Mr. Embree and his family were sent to an isolated police camp.

Hong Kong government statistics show other designated quarantine facilities have ample room for more people. Those centres include a public housing complex with more than 1,000 vacant units and a holiday village that remains empty. The department of health said its “quarantine centres are operated in compliance with infection control measures,” including cleaning, disinfection and waste disposal, and that “special arrangements would be made to children to suit their needs.”

But Mr. Embree saw little evidence of cleaning when he arrived. Instead, he found “dead insects and cockroaches and a filthy broken bathtub.” Mr. Embree said conditions are worse than Albert Head, on Vancouver Island, where he once went through basic training for the Canadian military.

“I’m very worried about my wife and my son – and their current mental situation,” Mr. Embree said. Mostly, though, he is angry at what he calls “the injustice of it all. We shouldn’t be here.”