HK’s zero-COVID policy tests healthcare system and public patience

February 22, 2022
HK’s zero-COVID policy tests healthcare system and public patience

The strict “zero-COVID” policy in Hong Kong may have helped in battling the early stages of COVID-19, but as a deadly Omicron outbreak sweeps the city, its defenses may well collapse in on itself. The government has, however, taken slow steps to adjust its COVID-19 policies from elimination to mitigation, in the hopes of containing the outbreak without overwhelming its healthcare system and the public.

While the elimination strategy permitted Hong Kong to have an enviable streak against COVID-19 – coronavirus infections and deaths were initially far fewer than in other world cities – it still caused major grievances to the public. The zero-COVID policy included measures such as hospitalisation of even asymptomatic patients and rigid isolation of close contacts with infected people: a person showing little or no symptoms could spend weeks in hospital, then move to an isolation facility for several more weeks before being allowed to return to normal life.

But as its healthcare system is stretched to breaking by recent infections, the government has made much-needed adjustments to the policy, now based on the severity of symptoms and availability of beds and isolation rooms. According to the new policy, asymptomatic carriers may go to quarantine facilities or even home while close contacts may isolate at home.

The government leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has said Hong Kong “cannot surrender to the virus” and that containing the outbreak “is now of paramount importance” as she seeks the people’s understanding for inconveniences caused by the changing policies. Lam has also ruled out plans for a full city lockdown, despite warnings from epidemiologists.

In addition, epidemiologists fear the negative framing around zero-COVID messaging may encourage complacency and false hopes among the largely unvaccinated elderly that the city may again become virus-free and stay that way. More than 60% of residents over age 80 have not been vaccinated, although some 85% of the entire population (7.4 million) has had at least one shot.

Hong Kong has asked the mainland for help and is currently expecting a shipment of more than a hundred million rapid test kits. Meanwhile, Hong Kong authorities plan to boost testing, build more isolation facilities, and ensure food supplies after vegetable shortages this month.

Unfortunately, as daily infections continue to increase at an alarming pace, residents are visibly frustrated and have started to lose faith. “The government wants to achieve dynamic zero-COVID, which has basically made citizens more troubled and confused, because I believe that no virus can be eradicated completely,” said 39-year-old Hang Tang.

Read: #CovidHomeCare kits to be distributed by Malaysian Red Crescent Society

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