Medical workers in Hong Kong began a third day of strike action on Wednesday, piling pressure on the city’s government to seal the border with mainland China as the number of locally transmitted cases of a new coronavirus increased.
The former British colony saw its first death from the virus on Tuesday. It has confirmed 18 cases, including at least four that were transmitted locally, authorities said.
“As the disease is spreading rapidly in our community, and locally infected cases are steadily increasing, we are dangerously close to a massive community outbreak comparable to SARS,” a newly formed union called the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) said in a statement.
The coronavirus epidemic, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, has rekindled memories in Hong Kong of a 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that began in China and killed nearly 300 people in the city.
The latest virus has spread rapidly in China with nearly 25,000 people infected and 490 deaths, most in Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei.
Health workers and members of other trade unions in Hong Kong have demanded that the border with the mainland be completely sealed to block it.
The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has suspended some links with the mainland and closed some border crossings but she has left three open, arguing that to close the entire border would be inappropriate, impractical and discriminatory.
Thousands of medical staff have joined members of other trade unions this week and the city’s Hospital Authority has warned that emergency services are being severely hampered.
Hong Kong’s beleaguered public hospital network was suffering from staff shortages and limited hospital beds before the coronavirus outbreak.
On Wednesday, dozens of medical representatives including the chairwoman of HAEA, Winnie Yu, marched to government headquarters to press their demands for the border to be sealed.
The health scare comes after months of at times violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong sparked by fears its autonomy, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, is being eroded by Beijing.
Some pro-democracy protesters have come out in support of the HAEA strike with some demonstrations beginning to take on the characteristics of the pro-democracy protests.
Overnight, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd in the city’s rural New Territories after protesters denounced the government’s refusal to seal the border.
On Wednesday, masked workers brandished posters reading “Hospital workers on strike” and “If we burn, you burn too” as they petitioned Lam to meet them and handed in a letter to her office on behalf of front-line medical staff.
Separately, a cruise ship which had been denied entry to the southern Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung docked in Hong Kong, with all passengers and crew undergoing health checks, Cable TV reported.