Hong Kong to Focus Covid Resources on Elderly as Deaths Rise; Zero-Covid Policy Taking Mental Toll, Say Experts

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced a series of measures targeted at elderly residents on Wednesday as a surge of COVID-19 infections sweeps through care homes with deaths rapidly climbing among the city’s mainly unvaccinated seniors. The government will strengthen medical treatment and resources and set up more isolation and temporary care facilities for elderly coronavirus patients, Lam told a media briefing.

She said a date for a compulsory mass testing scheme, which has triggered panic buying of groceries and essentials in the city, was still being considered but the government had not decided on a timeframe given the huge scale of the operation.

“It is a major exercise which cannot be done overnight. If it is not prepared with all the details and mobilised with all the resources, its not possible.” Her comments come after a top Chinese official said Hong Kong had to prioritise reducing infections, severe illnesses and deaths.

Infections in the global financial hub have surged to record highs of more than 500,000 cases and more than 2,500 deaths – most in the past two weeks. The city suffered the most deaths globally per million people in the week to March 7, according to the Our World in Data publication.

Lam who was addressing the media for the first time in over two weeks, said she would be holding daily media briefings to detail the city’s progress against the coronavirus and clarify rumours or misunderstandings.

Residents in the Chinese controlled territory have been confused and frustrated over contrasting messages from the government over the past two weeks about its campaign against the virus, including a plan for mass testing and whether a city-wide lockdown would be imposed.

China and Hong Kong have adopted a “dynamic zero” strategy that involves eliminating infections with strict mitigation measures as opposed to the approach adopted in other places of relying on high vaccination rates and moderate mitigation like masks in an effort to “live with COVID”.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant has tested both strategies but Hong Kong is now suffering the consequences of a relatively low vaccination rate, especially among the elderly, as the virus rips through the community.

About 90.5% of residents have had at least once vaccination but rates for the elderly have severely lagged with only around 50% for those aged 80 years and above.

Medical experts from the University of Hong Kong have estimated that by the end of April the number of people infected in the city of 7.4 million people could be about 4.3 million, with a death toll of 5,000.

Hong Kong’s hospitals, isolation centres and funeral parlours are swamped while public transport, malls, postal services, supermarkets and pharmacies are struggling to operate due to a severe manpower crunch.

Food prices have shot up and supermarket shelves have been emptied every day for a week as shoppers panic buy, on fears of a potential lockdown.

Mental toll

Hong Kong resident Yeung waited for 13 hours outside a hospital in the city’s eastern district in cold, rainy weather with his 3-year-old daughter, who had a high fever, before they could be admitted for COVID-19 treatment.

Yet the 42-year-old utilities worker had to stay in the hospital for four nights without a bed, because he and his daughter were not allowed to leave. They were then sent to a government isolation centre for nine more days.

His biggest stress came not from becoming infected, but leaving his wife and 22-month-old, both with COVID-19, at home without any support.

“My wife suffered a lot. Her symptoms became more serious because of the hardship of taking care of the baby and no time to rest,” said Yeung, who declined to give his full name because of the sensitivity of the matter. “She said she would jump down the building if no one came back to support her.”

Yeung’s tale is one of many in the global financial hub, which has some of the world’s most stringent coronavirus regulations more than two years after the pandemic started.

The mental wear and tear for many of the city’s 7.4 million residents often comes not from getting the virus but from the policy and messaging from authorities, prompting panic and anxiety, health experts said. For instance, the Hong Kong government insisted for a time that infected children, no matter how young, must be kept in isolation.

“At the cost of keeping us safe physically … It seems perhaps they have lost sight of the humanity in it. For all these measures, there is this underlying fear,” said Dr Judy Blaine, wellbeing specialist at Hong Kong consultancy Odyssey.

The burden falls more disproportionately on society’s most vulnerable, such as domestic helpers, migrant workers and low-income residents – many of whom live in tiny subdivided apartments with elderly parents and their children.

Four out of five low-income families said they faced huge COVID-related stress over the past month, according to a survey by local charity the People Service Centre.

More than 900,000 students are now home from school again. Playgrounds and most are venues shut, parents are struggling to work from home and teachers are warning of the long-term repercussions of keeping children out of class.

Food prices have shot up after vegetable shortages in February, and supermarkets have been emptied for more than 10 days as anxious residents stock up amid worries of citywide lockdown.

Some domestic helpers have been forced out of their employers’ homes after contracting the virus, while some residents have slept on rooftops and in stairwells so they don’t transmit COVID to relatives, local NGOs said.

“The pandemic has not been a day or two, it has been two years and the lack of supplies and support from the government has made everyone panic,” said Sze Lai Shan, who works for the Society for Community Organization, which supports low-income families.

“The feelings of helplessness creates more panic sentiment,” she added, with many people facing financial hardship as they cannot work.

Calls to Red Cross support hotlines have skyrocketed in the past two weeks as COVID infections surged, said Dr Eliza Cheung, one of the organization’s clinical psychologists.

Most are elderly residents from low-income households and families who were already vulnerable before the latest outbreak. Many worry they are running out of food and daily necessities, and feel helpless.

“The sentiment is pretty desperate by the time they reach us. They have already tried a lot of means to look for different kind of resources.. they have come to the stage where they only have two days of food left in the family and they don’t know what to do,” Cheung said.


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