Large numbers of people from Hong Kong have been going to mainland China, crowding the border crossing in Shenzhen as they escape outbreaks of the coronavirus in the former British territory.
The southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen is now at the forefront of China’s defenses against the virus as Hongkongers flee their city.
Quarantine hotel rooms in Shenzhen have been filling fast amid the spike in arrivals since the end of November, with cadres scrambling more medical workers in PPE gear to the only border checkpoint still in operation to conduct checks on the hoards crossing into mainland China.
Since last month Hong Kong has been seeing the highest number of daily new infections across the Greater China Region, with its total caseload breaking 7,000 this week, second only to Wuhan, the original ground zero of the highly contagious virus.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong added at least 100 fresh cases, mostly of local transmissions with unknown sources.
Hong Kong’s bitter, protracted fight against the virus with the city staggering from one wave to the next also means Shenzhen’s border checkpoint is periodically inundated.
Panicked Hongkongers, now mocked by some cynical mainland netizens as “Covid refugees,” rush to the safety of mainland China via Shenzhen, where large tracts of cities and towns remain Covid-free.
The latest figures from Hong Kong’s Immigration Department show the number of people entering the mainland via the Shenzhen Bay Bridge – the only crossing point that remains open after mainland China and Hong Kong shut their border to curtail the movement of people since February – surged threefold from November’s daily average of 1,100 to as high as 3,509 on December 2.
Daily arrivals from Hong Kong continued to hover above the 3,000 level until last weekend. In the first six days of December alone, more than 15,800 Hongkongers crossed to the mainland via Shenzhen.
Preliminary figures from Shenzhen’s government also revealed that a total of 600,000 Hongkongers, roughly 9% of the population, flocked to the mainland between February and November, when the trickle of northbound travel became a flood.
This was especially so after Beijing managed to whittle down the nationwide tally while the virus continued to ebb and flow in Hong Kong.
Also, the Hong Kong Education Bureau’s 11th-hour decision on December 1 to again shut all kindergartens and elementary schools and cancel exams has left close to 900,000 pupils and their parents in limbo, further spurring the rush as many parents sent their children to their relatives on the mainland.
While turning away Westerners, even though they have valid Chinese visas, so far Beijing does not have plans to shut the door on Hongkongers. And, those fleeing the former British colony are also not deterred by the whole catalog of red tape and additional health requirements and checks upon their entry to Shenzhen.
They must, within 24 hours prior to leaving Hong Kong, obtain negative test results from a very short list of local clinics and labs recognized by Shenzhen authorities.
Indeed, Hongkongers have nowhere else to go as the West and many neighboring destinations have closed their borders.
But if they head north to the mainland, they face five to eight hours of queueing and waiting at the Shenzhen Bay checkpoint, usually in packed halls where social distancing is not possible, as mainland immigration officers and health inspectors take pains to check temperatures and verify the identification and testing results of the growing crowd of arrivals.
A fortnight of solitary confinement at designated hotels will follow once these Hongkongers eventually clear the exhausting immigration and health inspection protocols, with room and food expenses during their stay, usually charged at a premium, to be footed by themselves.
All arrivals get tested for Covid-19 upon checking in, and tested at least one more time on the 14th day of their stay before they are allowed to go out and about.
Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily reported that some had to wait for as long as 16 hours at the border, during which time they must not pull down their masks to eat or drink as a precaution, before they are allocated hotel rooms.
Shenzhen is now running out of quarantine facilities and has sought help from neighboring cities like Guangzhou, Dongguan and Zhuhai to divert and accommodate the mounting arrivals.
An official with the Shenzhen government’s media affairs office told Asia Times that the city had requisitioned about 80% of budget hostels and other medium-range hotels for quarantine purposes and may invite some higher-end five-star properties to participate.
He said additional measures had been drafted to deploy more health inspectors to minimize the risks from overcrowding at the border.
“We have completely sealed-off fleets of coaches to ferry Hongkongers to their quarantine hotels, where we also have medical and security staff manning every floor and elevator to ensure zero transmission to the local community … Testing labs are working extended hours to process samples to find any asymptomatic carriers and we also frequently test all the officers at the checkpoint,” said the official.
A report published by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of Guangdong province, which has jurisdiction over Shenzhen, noted that an “all-out” effort had been coordinated by provincial authorities to receive Hongkongers wishing to enter the mainland, while fending off the virus that may creep across the border as Hongkongers leave the city en masse.
Guangdong, including Shenzhen, has not reported any local cases since August. But both Shenzhen and Zhuhai have this month logged at least two imported cases originating from Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Beijing is seeing the mass inflow of Hongkongers as a vote of confidence in the nation’s capabilities to suppress the pandemic, a shift in their attitude and perspective towards the mainland amid the striking contrast of Covid situations on both sides of the border.
In their op-eds, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po newspapers have already compared Hong Kong’s “fickle, ill-coordinated anti-virus measures” to mainland China’s sweeping, top-down containment drive which has proven to be effective in snapping infection chains once there are sporadic outbreaks.
The newspapers said Covid-19 may come as a wake-up call for numerous Hongkongers, many of whom have fled to the mainland or are considering doing so, as Beijing’s social and political systems were “fundamentally superior” to the ones in the West and in Hong Kong.
The Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily and Shenzhen Special Zone Daily quote Hongkongers seeking shelter against Covid in the province as saying that they felt “way safer on the mainland” where everyone had started going about their lives as normal.