Hong Kong has been in the grip of a spiralling outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid, with a fifth wave sweeping the city since December end last year, overwhelming healthcare facilities. Hospitals have been swamped with an influx of Covid patients and morgues are at breaking point.
Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have estimated that about 3.6 million residents of Hong Kong – out of a total population of 7.4 million – have been infected with Covid through 14 March.
They said the current wave peaked on 4 March. However, an estimated 4.5 million people are expected to contract the infection before the wave ends. More than 5,000 people are expected to die from Covid by 1 May, according to the researchers.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong reported 29,272 new infections and 217 deaths. It has so far recorded about 790,000 Covid infections and close to 5,000 deaths, most in the past three weeks.
Hong Kong, like mainland China, has followed a strict “zero-Covid” strategy, seeking to curb all outbreaks as soon as they occur, instead of trying to live with the virus. However, deaths have continued to spike.
Local reports suggest that elderly residents of care homes have accounted for 59 per cent of the total deaths. Most of them were unvaccinated.
Only about 30 per cent of Hong Kongers over the age of 80 have been double vaccinated, amid reports of significant vaccine hesitancy among older people.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has said there are no immediate plans to further tighten Covid restrictions in the region.
But she pointed out that elections scheduled for May could be delayed due to the fresh outbreak.
“A further delay cannot be decided by the Hong Kong special administrative region itself, it depends on how the central government sees it,” she said.
The city is facing its most draconian measures since the pandemic started in 2020. More than two people are not allowed to gather anywhere, while schools and most other venues are shut. Masks are mandatory everywhere. The region’s borders have also effectively been shut for the past two years, with only some flights allowed to land.
However, these stringent measures have not helped stop the increase in cases. Critics have blamed Hong Kong’s alleged complacency for the current situation.
Calvin Kong, an emergency physician at a public hospital, said he and his colleagues were in a “living hell”, according to NBC News.
“We have so much lead time and experience, but still we have to suffer from a health care system breakdown. Health authorities have not learned a lesson after two years,” he said.
Ben Cowling, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health, said: “The zero-Covid measures will not eventually stop the virus from getting in. They’ll only postpone it.”
He added: “In Hong Kong, we won’t be able to stop an outbreak once it gets established, and that’s exactly what’s happened now.”
Last week, Ms Lam put on hold plans to conduct universal testing while the government focused on reducing the number of deaths and severe infections.
Global Covid cases are on the increase after more than a month of decline, as cases in the western Pacific rose by almost 30 per cent last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said late on Tuesday. Covid cases had increased by 8 per cent during the week of 7 March, compared to the previous week.
This rise was driven by a surge in cases in the western Pacific, which covers countries such as China and Hong Kong.
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