The Hong Kong government’s sweeping compulsory quarantine order slapped on anyone crossing the border from mainland China starting from early February has resulted in more than 15,000 people, mostly local residents, being put in constant isolation and under surveillance for 14 days at 10,000-plus locations throughout the city.
The territory less than two hours from Wuhan by plane, the central Chinese megacity where the pandemic started, is teetering on the brink of a local outbreak amid the specter of a repeat of the SARS tragedy of 2003. Hong Kong has its own cluster of infections rising to 115 since the first case was confirmed on January 23, with three deaths as of Monday.
The local government did not shut border checkpoints to stem the flow of people from the virus-hit mainland until February 8, when a quarantine order was hastily gazetted amid a mounting clamor for action when the local tally of cases reached 26 on that day.
Under the new regulation, anyone entering the city from mainland China by air or via the only border checkpoint still open – Shenzhen Bay – will be mandated to remain at home, a hotel or an assigned place of quarantine for no less than two weeks. This is irrespective of their nationality, even though they passed temperature screening upon arrival and were deemed to be not displaying any symptoms of the novel coronavirus infection.
However, more than one month since the new quarantine rule was thrown into place, questions have been raised, with people asking if bureaucrats had been overly confident about people’s cooperation and self-discipline. There have been revelations that more than a few people have been found milling about in streets when they should be strictly confined to their homes for isolation.
In response, the government stressed blitz checks by police and law enforcement agencies and other means of monitoring, including video calls, electric wristbands and mobile phone-based location sharing and surveillance. It also revealed that 17 people undergoing quarantine had been intercepted when they sought to leave the city. They were transported to government-run camps for follow-up action, and two had been subpoenaed.
Contravening the compulsory quarantine requirement would constitute a criminal offense, with a maximum fine of HK$25,000 (US$3,218) and a jail term of six months. About 220 warning letters have also been issued to violators, and there is no confirmed cases among people under home quarantine thus far.
Hong Kong officials also pat themselves on the back as they say the city has fewer confirmed cases than that of other similar city-states like Singapore, which has a smaller population and is further from the epidemic epicenter of mainland China. Singapore has reported 150 cases.
Yet Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading virologist and the Chair of Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Microbiology, and his colleague Professor Keiji Fukuda, with the HKU’s School of Public Health, have both issued warnings in recent interviews.
They said the city could already have 900 infected people, of which 800 may not have any symptoms. This number was according to their calculations based on the infection rate among Hongkongers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise liner, a floating den of viral outbreaks docked at Yokohama, Japan, since early February.
Yuen also urged continued vigilance as the pathogen may not necessarily disappear in the onset of summer and the threat of imported cases from disease-ravaged countries like Italy, Iran, South Korea etc is there. His suggestion is to expand compulsory quarantine to cover all entering the city.
Health experts have also frowned at the heightened risk of cross-infection when immigration officers at the Shenzhen Bay border checkpoint herd hundreds of people crossing the border into one hall, where they are asked to share pens and manually fill in health declaration and address forms and sign a consent document of the quarantine order, in a crowded corner partitioned off in the hall.
They will then have to queue up for almost an hour to be questioned by immigration and health officers before being allowed into the city.
Many question the “low-tech” way of form-filling on the Hong Kong side – when passengers go through the mainland Chinese immigration and customs checks, they can simply use their phones to scam a designated QR code to input and update their health information and travel history to save time and minimize contact with others.
Critics also say Hong Kong’s home quarantine is a mere “formality” as people are allowed to use public transport to return home on their own, and many go to malls and supermarkets to stockpile food and daily necessities before going into home quarantine.
Some have also taken to social media to ask for help when they cannot get food from the government, as they are told to order deliveries online when they call designated helplines.
Social workers have also hit out at the government’s insistence on home quarantine, because many underprivileged people live in Hong Kong’s notoriously small subdivided flats, which are usually smaller than a standard parking lot and without a proper kitchen or bathroom. This is not the ideal quarantine conditions. They say other tenants living in the same confined spaces are also exposed to the risk of potential infection.