A health inspector conducts temperature screening at a train station in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: Xinhua

The Hong Kong government is planning to fly home about 5,200 of its citizens scattered across India or Pakistan after earlier repatriating its people from Wuhan and Hubei province in China, the epicenter of the Covid-19 plague.

The government has to weigh up the epidemic situation in South Asia and tread carefully, with an emphasis on not overwhelming the city’s quarantine, testing and healthcare systems. Hong Kong is still reeling from a previous upswing in imported cases from Europe and North America.

The plan to bring home this many people makes it one of the largest evacuation missions to be conducted by a country or territory since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan spiraled into a world-engulfing pandemic.

Hong Kong has managed to squash the spike in new infections among those returning from overseas, with its total tally of cases standing at 1,038 as of Tuesday, with no fresh infections reported for three days in a row.

And, with only four deaths among the infected, the city’s morality rate is even lower than those in Taiwan and New Zealand, whose efforts to curb the viral spread are seen as instructive for the rest of the world.

Hong Kong officials also stress that flying people back to the city would be carried out in stages, taking stock of the capacity of the city’s hospitals and quarantine camps. Hong Kong is chalking it up to experience as its sister city of Singapore is mired in snowballing local outbreaks. In Singapore, dormitories for imported labor, mostly from India, have been crawling with the highly contagious virus, with the total count of cases about to hit 15,000.

India’s confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus is also edging closer to 30,000, while Pakistan’s reported figure is 14,079.

A passenger in a subway train in Mumbai uses a piece of tissue to cover his face. Photo: Facebook

Yet Hong Kong’s officials have already been crucified for prioritizing the rescue operation of its citizens in Wuhan, while ignoring pleas from those unable to leave India or Pakistan.

Some critics even allege that the way the government triaged its resources and evacuation operations smacks of racism and discrimination, as most of those waiting to be flown home from India or Pakistan are ethnic minority people born in Hong Kong or the offsprings of immigrants from the two South Asian nations.

Hong Kong’s Immigration Department noted on Monday that it had contacted 3,200 citizens in India and 2,000 in Pakistan, and had discussions with Cathay Pacific, Air India and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

The bureau said the priority would be given to children, pregnant women, the elderly and patients who need immediate medical attention, as well as those in or near New Delhi and Islamabad.

But unlike the Wuhan evacuations, each passenger would have to pay the expenses themselves, with at least HK$7,000 (US$900) for a ticket out of Pakistan and HK$10,000 for a ticket from India.

Masked police at a police checkpoint in India, a country that has been locked down amid the contagion since late March. Photo: Xinhua
A police offer directs the flow of passengers at a train station in Mumbai as people head for their home villages ahead of the nationwide lockdown. Photo: AFP

A security official told reporters, after meeting the two countries’ consuls-general in the city and representatives from ethnic minority rights groups, that the main obstacle would be the blanket travel ban on not only international flights, but also domestic trips from one province to another.

He added, however, that authorities in both countries agreed in principle to assist, especially in contacting Hong Kong residents and conducting health screening prior to their departure, and the office of China’s foreign ministry in Hong Kong and Beijing’s embassies and consulates in India and Pakistan would also render assistance when needed.

India’s sweeping travel curbs and shelter-in-place orders since late March that ban everyone from leaving their place of residence have become a major hurdle, and local governments in various provinces there will have to collect the addresses of Hongkongers to deliver special travel permits to them before they can head for New Delhi’s airport.

Legislators and NOGs helping these stranded in the two countries, some in far-flung corners in rural areas, say these people should first go to major cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Karachi, Lahore etc for easier transit through these urban centers to their capitals.

The first chartered flight from Islamabad, likely to be operated by PIA, will fly 300 people home as early as this Wednesday.

But a heavily pregnant woman who is in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir region, about three hours by car from Islamabad, said she had the right of abode in Hong Kong but had not heard from the city’s government for days.

She added that she was running out of medication and should take priority to board the first chartered flight back to the city for antenatal check-ups.

Another citizen in the same region said he would not expect his 20 family members to return in one go and would let his children depart first.

Mohan Chugani, the former president of the Hong Kong-India Association, welcomed the plan, but flagged concerns about the affordability of air tickets as well as the need to expedite the arrangements and prioritize the vulnerable and elderly.

All passengers arriving at Hong Kong’s airport will have to undergo tests onsite and can only leave for their home for quarantine if they are tested negative for Covid-19. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam inspects a checkpoint at the airport, which is now closed to non-residents. Photos: China News Service, Handout

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, all will undergo nucleic acid tests at the airport and will be quarantined for 14 days, even if they return negative results. There have also been suggestions of putting all the arrivals in government-run isolation camps like requisitioned public housing estates and conducting another round of tests upon the completion of their two-week isolation.

There are about 100,000 South Asians living in Hong Kong who are residents of the territory, according to the latest census in 2016.

Earlier, the city also managed to help its residents in Morocco and Peru and those left on the virus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise liner get home.

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