Hong Kong’s Virus Rules Keep Cases Low but Stoke Complaints

Hong Kong’s Virus Rules Keep Cases Low but Stoke Complaints

Hong Kong’s Virus Rules Keep Cases Low but Stoke Complaints

Hong Kong’s Virus Rules Keep Cases Low but Stoke Complaints

HONG KONG — A pandemic illness had struck Hong Kong, and the Worley family had gamely followed the rules. They wore masks. They socially distanced. They skipped traveling overseas with their newborn baby to visit his grandparents.

Then the coronavirus came to the playgroup of their 15-month-old son. Now the three of them are stuck in a spartan government quarantine center for 10 days.

“We’ve done everything that was asked of us,” said Kylie Davies-Worley, the mother, who is Australian. “We’ve complied with every regulation, we’ve stayed home when we needed to, yet we feel like we’ve been treated like second-class citizens. It’s not humane.”

Hong Kong’s targeted approach to fighting the virus entails temporarily restricting the freedoms of a few for the benefit of the many. The Chinese territory has avoided full lockdown largely by moving aggressively to stamp out the virus wherever it may appear, whether among taxi drivers and restaurant workers, in densely crowded, low-income neighborhoods, or at dance halls popular with older women.

The government’s latest moves are focused on an outbreak among expatriates, who make up about one-tenth of the Asian financial capital’s population of 7.5 million. They often hold major positions in the local offices of global banks and powerful law firms, and have the resources to put Hong Kong’s policies on an international stage.

The outbreak, which has grown to 132 cases, began last week in a gym that caters to white-collar workers. Hundreds of close contacts have been rounded up for quarantine, including a large number of children whose schools have turned up cases. Some expatriate parents, fearing the effects of quarantine on their children, have appealed to their governments for help.

The American Chamber of Commerce called for more transparency. The American, British and Swiss consulates urged moderation. Thousands signed petitions.

Much of the expatriate anger focused on the fate of children. Some parents worried that their families would be separated by quarantine policies, while others raised concerns that government facilities were not properly equipped for small children or breastfeeding mothers. For older children, the greater damage might be psychological, the principal of one international school affected by the outbreak told CNN.

Of the almost 2,000 people in government quarantine centers as of Wednesday, about 150 are under the age of 18, according to officials.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said on Tuesday that the government did not have a policy of forcibly separating children from their parents and that quarantine arrangements were made based on each family’s circumstances.

“We are a compassionate government,” Mrs. Lam said at a news conference.

In a separate statement the same day, the government specified the amenities available to children in quarantine centers and said that “each and every decision has been made in the interests of the children and their families.”

Quarantine is nothing new in Hong Kong, which has one of the strictest policies in the world. People who test positive for the virus are isolated in hospitals for monitoring and treatment, regardless of whether they have symptoms, while their close contacts are quarantined for up to 14 days, even if they test negative. More than 42,000 people have passed through government quarantine facilities during the pandemic.

That approach has helped Hong Kong keep virus cases to a minimum, with an infection rate of about 1 in 660 people, compared with at least 1 in 12 in the United States, according to a New York Times database.

“One of the lessons from SARS is that targeted approaches like contact tracing and quarantine are a useful way to limit transmission of an infection, and that has been applied with great success with the Covid pandemic in Hong Kong,” said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health, referring to the 2003 epidemic that killed 299 people in the Chinese territory. (Hong Kong has recorded 203 deaths from Covid-19.)

Contact tracing and quarantine measures have reduced coronavirus transmission by a quarter since the start of the pandemic, according to an unpublished study by Dr. Cowling and his colleagues, and have enabled life in Hong Kong to go on with a feeling of normalcy that is unthinkable in places like the United States. Even with the latest outbreak, the government this week extended social-distancing restrictions that allow restaurants to stay open until 10 p.m.

But as the government has tried to follow shifts in the disease’s progression, it has at times been caught off guard, as with the issue of quarantine conditions for children. Health workers are given the discretion to make quarantine decisions on a case-by-case basis, which allows for flexibility but can also leave the public unsure how policies are carried out.

It doesn’t help that public trust in the Hong Kong government has been deeply damaged after a 2019 protest movement and the subsequent imposition of a draconian national security law by the central Chinese authorities. Residents have questioned whether some pandemic restrictions were intended at least in part to stop the protests from resuming.

That distrust is reflected in lower-than-expected participation in a citywide vaccination campaign, with residents especially skeptical of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine. On Monday, the government said it was expanding eligibility to everyone 30 and older to accelerate vaccination efforts.

Confusion, distrust and misinformation on social media have contributed to accusations of unequal treatment in quarantine decisions. Parents asked why some children were allowed to quarantine at home or in hotels instead of in government facilities; health officials say it depends on their degree of exposure to the virus.

The case of a couple working at the U.S. Consulate who tested positive for the virus but were allowed to bring their two children with them to the hospital caused further consternation and complaints of exceptional treatment. Mrs. Lam said the decision had been made based on the couple’s family circumstances and not their status as consular employees.

“Everybody is treated equal before the law and in terms of our epidemic control measures, regardless of their race, their status, their identity, whether they are more resourceful or less resourceful,” she said on Tuesday. “This is a fundamental principle in Hong Kong and we will abide by that principle.”

Though officials did relent on quarantine for some children, no such reversal came for members of the playgroup used by the Worley family. One of them, Jennifer Choi, is spending seven nights in a government center with her 13-month-old daughter.

Like the Worleys, Ms. Choi, who is from South Korea, said she had been careful to follow social-distancing rules. Her daughter often wears a face shield even though Hong Kong does not require masks for children under the age of 2.

So it was frustrating for her and other parents when officials cited the presence of maskless babies in the group as one reason all eight of them and their caregivers were being sent to government quarantine.

“What kind of logic is that?” Ms. Choi said.

Tiffany May contributed reporting.


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