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Coronavirus

Hong Kong outbreak tests limits of China's zero COVID policy

Mainland China to send personnel and build facilities to contain spread

People line up at a COVID-19 testing center in Hong Kong's Central district.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- The eruption of new coronavirus cases in Hong Kong has blindsided officials who have imposed strict zero COVID measures on the Asian financial hub, forcing Beijing to send backup to contain the outbreak.

Hong Kong has recorded over 1,000 new cases for consecutive days, making it the most virulent location by far in greater China. The case count started surging after the Lunar New Year holiday. Over 2,000 infections were confirmed Monday for the first time.

There had been barely any community spread through the end of December, thanks to the stringent COVID controls put in place. But the virus was apparently introduced through vectors such as imported hamsters and quarantine hotels.

Compounding the epidemic is Hong Kong's high population density. More than 400 people tested positive at a single public housing complex.

The government has responded forcefully to the situation. On top of a prohibition against eating out during evenings, barbershops have been forced to shut their doors.

Private gatherings, such as those at homes, are limited to just two families. About 200,000 people are tested a day, including those who live in condominiums where cases were discovered.

But despite those measures, the caseload continues to climb. Supermarkets have closed due to workers getting sick from the disease.

Hong Kong's woes have been a subject of concern for China's central government. A delegation of ministers led by John Lee, Hong Kong's chief secretary for administration, met with mainland officials in nearby Shenzhen on Saturday to discuss remedies.

China agreed to help Hong Kong upgrade testing capacity by building quarantine facilities and dispatching personnel, Lee said following the meeting. It is believed that Chinese officials have become increasingly annoyed with the Hong Kong government for not adopting lockdowns and other hardline measures used in the mainland.

In a commentary dated Feb. 7, the Communist Party-controlled People's Daily newspaper warned Hong Kong against "living with COVID," likening the approach to "laying flat" in front of the disease.

"Some people irresponsibly propose the implementation of 'living with COVID,'" the piece reads. "If the wrong arguments prevail, it will shake the confidence of Hong Kong's entire society."

Yet, 57% of Hong Kong's public believe that living with COVID is the most appropriate policy for the territory, according to a February poll conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. The zero COVID approach garnered only 32%.

Jasper Tsang, the China-friendly former president of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, said in a recent interview that the COVID response should be viewed from a scientific perspective.

"Living with COVID is not lying flat," said Tsang.

Several in Hong Kong's business community have complained about the negative aspects of the zero COVID strategy. The ban against U.S. and British passenger planes landing in the financial hub has been cast as highly extreme compared to major nations.

Fitch Ratings last Wednesday halved Hong Kong's economic growth outlook for this year to 1.5% from 3%.

"Hong Kong will not lift its zero COVID policy until late 2022 at the earliest," British research firm Oxford Economics said in a report last week. Due to the disruptions caused by the tight border restrictions, the organization expects that approach "will hinder the economic recovery and weigh on its attractiveness as a global financial hub."

A number of businesses have followed up their words with action. The Mandarin Oriental luxury hotel group will seek to temporarily base its executive team outside of Hong Kong due to the strict COVID restrictions, CEO James Riley told the Financial Times in an interview published last week.

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