Chaos at Hong Kong’s Covid-19 quarantine centre leaves some people trapped


HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) – Hours without electricity or mobile-phone reception. No food for an entire day. Unable to leave because of missing documents.

These are among the tales of chaos pouring out of a makeshift quarantine camp in Hong Kong, as one of Asia’s wealthiest cities struggles to house, feed and process some 3,000 people it has isolated in a desperate bid to stamp out the coronavirus from the Chinese territory of 7.4 million people.

Ms May Ng, 52, was still held at the main Penny’s Bay quarantine centre on Thursday (Jan 13) even though her detention order – seen by Bloomberg News – said she should have departed a day earlier. Staff at the camp told her the Health Department had not provided documents needed for her release, she said.

“I feel that this isn’t the same Hong Kong where I grew up,” Ms Ng said. “The government is so unorganised, and there’s no leadership. They just follow tasks. They don’t look at the big picture.”

The disarray has triggered a wave of anger from holed-up residents, and exposed a government under-prepared for the highly infectious Omicron variant after relying primarily on strict border curbs to manage the pandemic.

Hong Kong still has one of the developed world’s lowest vaccination rates despite going months without a locally transmitted case, prompting authorities to send close contacts of positive cases to quarantine camps for several weeks.

The crisis at Penny’s Bay, which sits near Hong Kong Disneyland on the outlying island of Lantau, also poses a major barrier to lifting a passenger flight ban from the United States, Britain and other major economies.

Travellers from such “high-risk” nations have to filter through Penny’s Bay to re-enter the city, which has seen visitor numbers plummet just a few years after boasting one of Asia’s busiest airports.

“If this is the only way to handle Zero Covid then we need to give up on Zero Covid and safeguard the economy and livelihood of the community,” district councillor Paul Zimmerman said. “The flight ban is an outrageous measure and must be lifted forthwith. Hong Kong is a world city and a cog in the wheels of international trade and finance.”

Hong Kong has stuck with its policy of eliminating the virus to try to restart quarantine-free travel with mainland China. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Wednesday that the city would need to go 14 days without a single local infection to realise that goal, which Mr Zimmerman described as a “dead end road”.

Hong Kong has reported more than 50 community cases in the past two weeks, after conducting nearly one million tests on residents, mostly tied back to imported cases.

With hospitals and isolation venues filling up, officials said on Monday they would allow close contacts of confirmed patients to quarantine for 14 days in government facilities, down from the previous 21 days. Designated hotels and a holiday village were also re-purposed to beef up capacity.

For now, staff at Penny’s Bay and other quarantine centres are overwhelmed with managing testing and paperwork for thousands of people with unique circumstances. Quarantined residents contacted by Bloomberg said phone calls to the centre’s hotline often go unanswered and the voicemail of its testing site is always full, leaving those isolated without any guidance.

Hong Kong resident K. Lam was among those prevented leaving this week due to missing documents. “My daughter cried the whole night last night as she expected to go to school today,” Ms Lam said of her 12-year-old, who was also in the 20 sq m room. The pair were finally released on Thursday afternoon.

Hong Kong authorities have acknowledged the dire conditions at Penny’s Bay, and vowed to fix them.

On Wednesday, the government announced a three-hour electricity disruption for hundreds of units, which quarantined residents said was accompanied by a mobile-phone reception blackout.

“I understand the relevant parties are very busy working on the quarantine facilities and logistics and so on, because of this huge sudden increase in demand,” health official Chuang Shuk-kwan said at a press briefing on Thursday. “They are trying their best to sort it out.”

Still, many in Hong Kong are questioning the sustainability of the policy.

“The government needs to start having a conversation with the public as to what happens when the variant is loose in the community,” said Dr Nicholas Thomas, professor in Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. “This will mean shorter quarantine times, more robust vaccinations and a greater reliance on vaccine mandates.”

Quarantined residents spoke of not being tested regularly despite government rules mandating them, or failing to receive their results. Earlier this week, they received a letter asking them to call the centre’s hotline if they had not been tested by their third day in quarantine.

Bendo, who asked to only be quoted by his middle name, said he was still awaiting results from a test he took on Jan 7. “Who knows, maybe I am positive,” he said. “When I kept calling two days ago, they literally said we can’t find your test results.”

He also expressed concern about getting stuck in quarantine after police stopped a woman who tried to leave on the date specified on her detention order. “As soon as the quarantine date expires, we should be allowed to leave,” Bendo said. “It’s not a prison.”

Paul, a Hong Kong resident and British national who asked to be identified by his first name, said he did not receive drinking water for the first six hours of his stay in quarantine, and food delivery was erratic.

“Every time you talk to them, the response is, ‘please be patient’ – they’re at breaking point,” he said. “I just wonder what is the end game because I can’t see how Hong Kong can continue along this path indefinitely.”

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