Since January 23, Hong Kong health professionals have urged the Government to close the border checkpoints between Hong Kong and China to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus in Hong Kong. However, the Government has only agreed to strengthen border controls and reduce the number of visitors from mainland China by half.
As of January 30, 7830 cases have been confirmed and 12 167 coronavirus infections in China are suspected. This figure has exceeded 5327 confirmed cases, recorded during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003. Of the ten cases of coronavirus confirmed in Hong Kong, some are visitors from Wuhan and the other citizens of Hong Kong who visited That city recently.
Although Beijing closed Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province and center of the outbreak on January 23, according to senior Hubei officials, approximately five million Wuhan residents (more than 40% of the city's population) abandoned the city during the rush of the lunar New Year season. This suggests that several thousand coronavirus carriers may be traveling throughout the country.
So far, Beijing and Shanghai have reported more than one hundred confirmed cases and Guangdong, a province adjacent to Hong Kong, confirmed 354 cases. The medical sector fears that if Hong Kong does not close its borders at the entrance of visitors from mainland China, the coronavirus could expand through the city, which due to the density of its population, is particularly vulnerable to epidemics.
Although, prolonged anti-government protests in Hong Kong reduced visits by mainland Chinese by 50% during 2019, the city received 1,927,659 visitors from mainland China in November 2019 alone. This means that, on average, more than 30 000 continental Chinese entered the city every day. Because many Hong Kong residents returned to their home provinces in mainland China to celebrate the Lunar Year and will return to Hong Kong at the end of February, the medical sector fears that hospitals will run the risk of overloading if the Government does not restrict the Mainland Chinese travelers entrance.
The painful lessons of the SARS epidemic
The concerns of the medical sector are unfounded. Hong Kong was the hardest hit region during the SARS epidemic 17 years ago. Between January and June 2003, the epidemic claimed 286 lives in Hong Kong, nine were health workers. The outbreak was traced to a supercontainer in Guangzhou, who was responsible for 80% of cases in Hong Kong, including 30 nurses and doctors from the hospital where he was treated.
As a result, the city was put on high alert after the news about Wuhan's coronavirus emerged. Between January 5 and 15, after China declared that there was no increase in infection, Hong Kong identified 76 suspected cases. On January 21, after China denied the possibility of the virus being transmitted from human to human, Yuen Kwok Yung, one of the leading infectious disease experts, announced that the virus had entered the transmission stage. Before Beijing put Wuhan in quarantine, several continental Chinese accused Hong Kong of spreading social panic.
Health workers urge the government to close the border between Hong Kong and China
While the medical sector, after learning the painful lesson of the SARS outbreak, requested the help of the inhabitants of the city to combat the epidemic, the Government has lagged behind.
In response to the request that the checkpoints between China and Hong Kong be closed, the authorities only agreed to suspend direct transport between Wuhan and Hong Kong. The Hospital Authority Workers Alliance, which recently formed a health workers union and has 15,000 members, threatened to take an industrial action if the government refused to close the borders, he explained:
The goal of such a measure is to prevent any non-Hong Kong resident from entering Hong Kong via China without a crucial purpose, and if such entry to Hong Kong is considered unavoidable, each case should be reviewed independently on whether his (or) her entry should be granted. As for Hong Kong citizens returning to the city from China, stringent health monitoring measures should be implemented.
The goal of that measure is to prevent anyone who does not live in Hong Kong and who does not have an important reason from entering Hong Kong through China. Unless that entry to Hong Kong is declared unavoidable, each case will be reviewed independently before allowing entry. As regards Hong Kong citizens returning to the city from China, they will be subject to strict measures to monitor their health.
Macau, which was a Portuguese colony and which was later returned to China in 1999 under the law of “One country, two systems”, has prohibited the entry into the city of the inhabitants of the provinces of Wuhan and Hubei, since 26 January. Hong Kong followed suit on January 27. Hong Kong Executive Director Carrie Lam also announced the suspension of the high-speed rail service between Hong Kong and mainland China on January 30, with the approval of Beijing. China will suspend the issuance of permits to individual visitors to Hong Kong in 49 Chinese cities. This policy will reduce the number of visitors from mainland China by about 15,000 per day.
Meanwhile, Russia has announced the closure of its borders to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus to that country. Vietnam also announced the suspension of visas to all Chinese citizens, including those from Hong Kong and Macau.
As the Lunar Year nears its end, the first two weeks of February will be crucial in controlling the epidemic. Meanwhile, Hong Kong is still waiting for Beijing's approval of border control.