Before the pandemic and a harsh crackdown on dissent upended life in Hong Kong, the territory was often considered China's "window on the world." But now, with omicron infections raging out of control, Hong Kong finds itself trapped between two worlds: The West, where countries are loosening restrictions and talking about finding ways to live with COVID, and mainland China, where authorities are still pushing for zero COVID at all costs. On Jan. 27, the territory set a record with 164 COVID cases. Three weeks later, on Feb, 17, it recorded more than 6,000 cases. Hospitals are overwhelmed and Xi Jinping has ordered Hong Kong to make controlling the outbreak its "overwhelming priority." More:
- The dilemma. Hong Kong doesn't have the option of choosing to live with COVID, but without "Beijing’s full authoritarian tool kit or nearly unlimited manpower," it stands little chance of eradicating omicron, the New York Times notes. A mainland-style total lockdown of the city of 7.5 million is still considered unlikely, though officials are discussing ordering the compulsory testing of all residents.
- Troubling scenes. Authorities say the "tsunami" of omicron cases has "far exceeded" Hong Kong's capacity for treating cases, along with its tracing and isolation systems, reports CNBC. Elderly patients awaiting admission to COVID wards are being treated on beds outside hospitals, in some cases for days. Inside the overwhelmed hospitals, bathrooms are filthy and treatment rooms are crammed with patients and strewn with garbage, reports the Guardian.
- How it went so badly wrong. The Guardian notes that many Hong Kongers have been sarcastically quipping, "If only they had two years to prepare." The territory recorded almost no cases of community COVID transmission in 2021 and health experts say it may have led to complacency among authorities and a failure to plan or prepare for a huge surge in cases. Hong Kong relied on a 21-day quarantine to keep omicron out, but one of the main sources of the current outbreak was a woman who became infected while staying in a quarantine hotel.
- The future looks bleak. Experts say that the worst of the pandemic probably lies ahead for Hong Kong, with daily cases set to reach 28,000 by March at the current spread. With restaurants and other businesses hit hard by restrictions, analysts believe the territory could end up in recession while other economies are booming. "Even though maybe zero COVID can be reached, there is still uncertainty on how long it can be maintained and what the cost is of maintaining it," says Natixis senior economist Gary Ng, per the AP.
- A "loyalty test." The Economist reports that commentators on the mainland are increasingly viewing the zero COVID policy as a "loyalty test" that authorities are failing. They have accused Hong Kong officials of "worshiping" Western values of freedom and lacking faith in China's COVID control policies. They also accuse of officials of making reopening to other countries a higher priority than reopening the border with mainland China.
- COVID fatigue. The BBC reports that after months of ever-tightening restrictions, COVID fatigue is rising in Hong Kong and the lifting of restrictions seems very distant. Carrie Lam, the territory's chief executive, responded to Xi's order by promising to "mobilize all available manpower and resources and adopt all necessary measures." The government says personnel are being sent from the mainland to assist with measures including COVID testing and the construction of new isolation facilities.
- "Falling between two stools." Pro-establishment legislature member Regina Ip is among those calling for stricter measures. "Senior officials are held hostage by Western ideas about the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms which they hold in awe but do not fully understand," she tells the Economist. She says that as things stand, Hong Kong is "falling between two stools: neither as effective in controlling the spread of COVID as mainland China, nor as open as our rival city, Singapore."
- Election of new chief executive postponed. The election of the territory's chief executive by a 1,500-member committee has been postponed from March 27 to May 8, with the nomination process beginning in mid-April, RTHK reports. It's not clear whether Lam plans to seek re-election. On Friday, she said the postponement "matches the spirit of President Xi Jinping's important directive— that controlling the epidemic is the overriding mission, over anything else."
(Last month, Hong Kong ordered the culling of thousands of pets
after hamsters were blamed for an outbreak of the delta variant.)