HONG KONG -- As many as 9,000 doctors, nurses and public hospital employees, including those at emergency services units, in Hong Kong went on strike on Tuesday, demanding the government seal all borders with mainland China to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in the city, which reported its first fatality from the disease.
A 39-year-old man diagnosed positive for the coronavirus in Hong Kong died, marking the first casualty in the city, a spokesperson at the Hong Kong Hospital Authority told the Nikkei Asian Review on Tuesday morning. The patient visited Wuhan -- in China's central Hubei Province, where the virus originated -- in late January and lived with his mother after returning to Hong Kong. His 72-year-old mother has also been diagnosed positive for the coronavirus.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Monday that the semi-autonomous city would tighten more borders with the mainland, with 11 of the 14 border crossings closed starting at midnight on Monday, falling short of hospital workers' -- and other members of the public -- demand of a total border closure. As of Tuesday, there were over 20,000 confirmed cases and 425 deaths in mainland China. Seventeen people in Hong Kong have tested positive for the coronavirus.
"We have no choice but to respond this way," said Winnie Yu, chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, as talks broke down between government authorities and the alliance on Monday evening, meaning that over 10% of public hospital employees will go on a 4-day strike starting Tuesday. More than 2,500 nonemergency medical workers participated in a strike on Monday.
At a news conference on Tuesday morning, Lam described such action as "irresponsible," urging hospital staff to end their walkout immediately. She explained that a complete border closure is "impossible" as "it brings drastic impact to Hong Kong." The tightened border control measures announced on Monday is expected to reduce inbound travel by half, she said.
The Hospital Authority said on Tuesday that a wide range of emergency services are affected and scheduled surgeries need to be postponed due to the strike. It called for the public to visit private clinics for mild illnesses.
"Basically, the government is asking us to clean the house while its keeps pouring water in," a 27-year-old nurse, who gave his name as Adrian and was on strike. "It does not make any sense. We won't have enough resources if the number of infections keeps surging."
The coronavirus outbreak is stirring up memories in Hong Kong of the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003. Its proximity to mainland China helped to spread the disease in the densely populated city, leading to over 1,700 cases of infection and 299 deaths over five months.
Supplies for face masks and sanitary products have been running low in Hong Kong since the first confirmed case was reported on Jan 22.
Many people in Hong Kong are wearing white ribbons to show their solidarity with medical workers.
"These doctors and nurses do not strike for personal benefits, but for the public good," said a 60-year-old man who gave his surname of Chan. He said that his doctor's appointment for a diabetes checkup was postponed because of the strike. "I don't see a reason not to support them."
A survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute shows that over 80% of Hong Kong citizens agree on closing all borders with mainland China. Political parties, scientists and scholars in the territory also voiced their support for such a measure.
"Closing the border entirely is the only effective way to prevent the spread of the virus," Ho Pak-leung, a medical professor of the University of Hong Kong told local media on Monday.
Three-quarters of business leaders said they wanted Hong Kong to shut the border with the mainland, according to a survey of 156 executives by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
The outbreak of the coronavirus has prompted countries around the world to restrict entries of Chinese nationals, despite the World Health Organization's decision not to impose travel restrictions.
Governments including the U.S., Australia, Taiwan and Singapore are denying entry to all foreign visitors who have recently been to China.
Additional reporting by Nikki Sun.