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World: Locking down homes, Hong Kong takes COVID lesson from Beijing

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Hong Kong, China – Collecting sewage samples, mandatory mass-testing and sealing off residential buildings for days on end, Hong Kong is stamping out its worst COVID-19 outbreak by taking a page out of Beijing’s playbook – much to the frustration of its residents.

At Kwai Chung Estate, the site of a growing Omicron outbreak, authorities have placed three blocks under lockdown for five to seven days. On Thursday, the city, which has adopted a strict “zero COVID” policy to align with mainland China, reported a daily record of 164 cases.

Many residents of the public housing estate, particularly those living hand to mouth, are struggling with the mental and financial toll of the latest tightening of measures in the international financial hub.

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Wong, a 28-year-old beauty salon worker who lives on the estate, told Al Jazeera she panicked when the government announced the latest restrictions last Friday.

Wong lost her income earlier this month after the Hong Kong government closed businesses including bars, gyms and beauty salons.

The announcement that 2,700 residents of Yat Kwai House would not be able to leave their apartment block left Wong unable to take up part-time waitressing work to make up the lost income. Her father, who works as a driver, has also been left without earnings.

Amid rising cases, authorities on Tuesday extended the lockdown of Wong’s building by another two days till Saturday. The government has not offered any financial support to the residents confined to their homes.

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The pressure of making ends meet comes on top of fears that they are not safe within their own apartment.

“There is a great fear of cross-infection,” said Wong, who asked not to use her first name, noting that some neighbours who initially tested negative became infected during home quarantine.

Hong Kong is one of the few places still pursuing a “zero COVID” policy [File: Peter Parks/AFP] © Provided by Al Jazeera Hong Kong is one of the few places still pursuing a “zero COVID” policy [File: Peter Parks/AFP]

Residents have complained of poor coordination by the authorities during the lockdowns, which have been implemented for the first time in a city that kept the virus at bay for much of the pandemic with some of the world’s toughest border restrictions.

Without proper triage during the first few days, residents queueing for their mandatory tests flooded the elevators and lobby, increasing the chance of cross-infection within the building.

Some residents who tested positive waited up to 35 hours before they received any treatment or medical attention. Others reported not receiving their government-provided lunchbox and running short on basic supplies. A number of households at Kwai Chung Estate and several other housing estates were evacuated to a hotel or quarantine centre, due to suspected vertical and horizontal transmission.

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For some, the emotional distress was too much to bear. On Thursday morning, a man dangled from the rooftop of one block and attempted to jump, before he was talked down by firefighters.

Lee, a 30-year-old security guard who also lives at Yat Kwai House, told Al Jazeera he feared being forced into quarantine more than catching the disease. He has already lost his attendance bonus for missing his shifts. If the lockdown is extended again, his job will be at risk as well.

“I constantly worry that I will have to be quarantined just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Lee, who urged the government to issue financial support and a notice for residents to show their employers if the measures last beyond a week.

Lee also complained about the unhygienic conditions and buildup of rubbish on every floor. All 40 cleaners that served the housing estate were sent to the government’s quarantine camp after one tested positive and spread the virus to other residents and building staff.

Hong Kong is one of few places that is still maintaining a “zero COVID” stance, even as critics say the policy is increasingly unsustainable. Local experts have predicted the latest wave could last until April or May.

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‘What is the point of zero COVID?’

Taking into consideration the shorter incubation period of Omicron, the Hong Kong government on Thursday announced it would shorten the hotel quarantine period for incoming travellers from 21 days to 14 days, starting next Saturday. Arrivals will be expected to carry out seven days of self-monitoring after quarantine.

Other pandemic controls, including school closures, a 6pm curfew on dining at restaurants and a ban on flights from high-risk countries, will remain in place till at least late February.

Speaking on Thursday – hours after Sophia Chan, the city’s health chief told Bloomberg that Hong Kong had the virus under control – Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned that the situation was still precarious.

“It’s certainly not a situation that would give us the comfort or the assurance that it is under control,” said Lam, citing 30 untraceable cases, the possibility of silent transmission chains and traces of virus in sewage samples tested. “We are expecting that, any time, it could have an exponential increase in cases and it could give rise to a massive community outbreak.”

For Nick Leung, the government’s insistence on elimination makes no sense. The 28-year-old fitness trainer moved his classes outdoors after gyms were forced to close, but his income has still dropped by more than half. During the lockdown, he is losing about HK$1,300 ($167) each day.

“If you look around the world, people are no longer getting tested or vaccinated,” Leung said. “The symptoms are so mild that many don’t have to be hospitalised and will naturally recover. So what is the point of the zero COVID strategy?”

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