Xi urges Hong Kong to take control as COVID-19 cases surge

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Hospitals in Hong Kong are struggling to keep up with an influx of new patients amid record numbers of new coronavirus infections as the city’s leadership doggedly adheres to its “zero-COVID” strategy

HONG KONG — Hong Kong hospitals on Wednesday struggled to keep up with an influx of new coronavirus patients amid a record number of new infections as the city’s leadership doggedly adheres to its “zero-COVID” strategy, China’s leader Xi Jinping said , this is the case the “overriding task” of the local government to control the situation.

Hong Kong is facing the worst outbreak of the pandemic, recording more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases a day this week. The city government has already issued strict rules and banned gatherings of more than two households.

According to Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing news outlet, Xi personally issued instructions, directing Vice Premier Han Zheng to convey to Hong Kong Premier Carrie Lam the grave concern of Chinese Communist Party leaders over the ongoing outbreak in the city.

Zheng stressed to Lam that the Hong Kong government should “seriously take primary responsibility and regard the rapid stabilization and control of the epidemic as the current priority task,” the outlet said.

Zheng said China’s central government agencies and neighboring Guangdong province would provide Hong Kong with resources to fight the outbreak, including rapid antigen tests, medical expertise and supplies.

China has been able to control the virus within its borders and maintain a strict “zero tolerance” policy that includes full lockdowns and mass testing of millions of people.

Lam has also stuck to the “zero-COVID” policy, despite geographic and other differences between the city, a special administrative region, and China itself. Xi and Zheng’s comments were the latest pressure from Beijing for them to stay the course.

In practical terms, Hong Kong, which follows the same approach, means travel between the city and the mainland will be subject to less stringent quarantine rules than the three weeks or more required for all foreigners arriving in mainland China.

Beijing will not reopen Hong Kong’s mainland borders unless the city achieves and maintains zero COVID-19 cases.

The system attempts to contain and stop outbreaks as soon as they occur, with measures such as instant bans and extensive contact tracing. Last week, the entire upscale Discovery Bay neighborhood was put under a test after authorities found traces of the virus in its sewage.

People who test positive must be quarantined either in hospitals if they have severe symptoms, or in government facilities if they have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The new record number of cases, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, has led to the current overcrowding.

In contrast, the city-state of Singapore, which is similar in size to Hong Kong at about 5.7 million vs. Hong Kong’s 7.5 million, implemented strict lockdown measures at the start of the pandemic but is now adopting a “living with COVID” approach.

The number of new cases per capita in Singapore has skyrocketed with the arrival of omicron. 1,911 new cases per million people were reported as of Monday, up from 66 per million in Hong Kong, according to Our World in Data.

But people who have tested positive and have no or only mild symptoms are only required to self-quarantine at home, and even those who have more severe symptoms are being urged to see a doctor before going to hospital.

Singapore also has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with 88% of the population being fully vaccinated compared to Hong Kong’s 64%.

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Rising reports from Bangkok

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